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#005: In Search of a Great Arch

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arch01 Zion National Park, Utah / October 30th, 2011
Park Ranger Mike Large talks about natural arches in Zion National Park, Utah… On my second night in the park, I attended a ranger lecture titled “In Search of a Great Arch” hosted by veteran ranger Mike Large. Thanks to Ranger Large’s generosity, I am able to present the entire lecture here on the Slices of America Podcast. This is an enhanced episode… To see these images, please open the album artwork on your software or mobile player. Get the enhanced version.

 

Zion: West Rim

Day three in Zion looked quite different form the previous days. The sun disappeared, and in its place were low hanging clouds that spit mist from dawn to about 4:00 PM. The drizzle tamed the dust and generated cooler hiking temperatures. I packed up all of my gear and caught the park shuttle to The Grotto, which doubles as the trailhead for the west rim.

Trailhead 9:15 AM. The first two miles of the west rim trail are extremely strenuous, unforgiving, switchbacks. Most trails level out now and then, but this stretch seemed to be entirely uphill. About a fourth into the 2-mile climb, I caught up with a gentleman from Florida who also seemed to be struggling. His family had gone ahead of him, and they planned to meet up at the end of the switchbacks. We got to talking about flat land, altitude, and fishing. He also told me that his family was on a large tour of the high desert parks. Zion was their second stop. The family had just returned from a hellish tour of the Grand Canyon, where the father had been struck by lightening, frying a cell phone in his hands! Before we knew it, we had commiserated our way to the top of the switchbacks. The climb ended at Scout Lookout. At this junction, most climbers elect to climb up Angel’s Landing, arguably the park’s best view of the canyon. Some hikers, but not nearly as many, continue hiking west along the west rim trail. I would continue west, climbing higher up the west rim, setting aside Angel’s Landing for the next day’s return trip.

 

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Scout Lookout – great resting spot with two pit toilets. The family of four at the bottom are the folks I met from Florida.

At Scout Lookout, I parted with my Florida friends but instantly met two new trail buddies. Long story short, two scout leaders from Las Vegas were tracing the steps of their group in search of a lost camera. I had the camera, and they were very grateful. The two scout leaders and I hiked all the way up to Cabin Spring together, just over three miles. Along the way, they helped pass the time through conversation. One of the scout leaders had hiked the west rim trail many times, and he pointed out features that I may not have noticed. For example, he identified an example of cryptobiotic soil and discussed its importance to the region.

 

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Early morning climbers on Angel’s Landing

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Las Vegas scout leader pointing out cryptobiotic soil

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The wooded area just above that waterfall marks my destination – West Rim Spring and Campsite #2

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Trail up to camp – this will come into play later

Our journey together ended at Cabin Spring. At this point atop the rim of one of Zion’s beautiful, lush plateaus, is campsite #2 (my campsite), Cabin Spring (the only water source around), and the continuing trail west along the rim. The entire group of boy scouts, probably about fifteen in all, were waiting there, and one scout in particular was very happy to see his dad carrying his camera. We all sat under a large tree and ate a late lunch. Afterwards, the scouts continued west, and I walked the short distance up to campsite #2 to set up for the night.

 

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view from campsite #2 on the West Rim

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While obtaining my permits on the previous day, a park ranger tipped me off to the splendor of the west rim, “If you’re going to camp at site #2, you might as well hike a few miles further out along the west rim. You won’t want to miss those views.” I left camp and hiked about two miles further along the west rim. Just like the ranger promised, the views were amazing, beautiful, jaw-dropping, inspiring and every other cliché phrase typically used when attempting to describe the indescribable. I went as far as campsite #4, about 7-8 miles from the canyon floor. There I found an unoccupied one-man tent and benches made from loose rock. From this vantage point, the trees thinned and the view was totally unimpeded. The park’s most majestic peaks and greenest plateaus were highlighted by the sun. I stared out for nearly half an hour as shifting clouds drastically changed the landscape. Each minute seemed to reveal a new image. The most impressive sight from campsite #4 was that of Zion’s painted desert in the far distance. Just then I heard voices coming from the west. Sure enough, four young men in their early 20s came around the trail. They introduced themselves and mentioned that they were hiking to campsite #1, not far from where I would end the day. I told them about my plans for the evening, and they graciously invited me over to their site for dinner. We planned to meet up before dusk, and they went ahead down towards the camps. I sat and surveyed the southern extremities of the park for a few more minutes, taking in as much of the beauty before starting back for camp.

 

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West Rim Spring – had to filter this water with my shirt before sterilizing it with the Steripen device

To reach my remote campsite I hiked about 50 yards along a thin path surrounded by shin-deep vegetation. The path spilled into the campsite which was nestled against a wall of red sandstone. Looking back over the path, I could see the canyon below – another amazing campsite view. I set up my tent and found the accommodations irresistible. It was only 2:00 PM, but a short nap was in order. Out of shape and not accustomed to high altitudes, I was whipped from the morning’s climb – 2,500 feet of elevation gain over five miles. A short nap rejuvenated my body and mind. I woke up to sunshine and fresh legs.

 

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Just as planned, I made my way over to campsite #1 before dusk. The guys were easy to get along with, very upbeat and positive. Each of these local men were young Mormon missionaries that had just returned from trips abroad. On these adventures, they completed their formal missionary service. Now back from their service, they were in college working on various degrees. We ate dehydrated meals and chatted until just before dark. At this point I realized that my headlamp was not on me. I thanked them for their hospitality and made my way back to camp #2. Before hitting the sack I gathered my food items and aromatic cleaning supplies, bagged them in a stuff sack, and hung them from a large tree – the same tree where I had eaten a late lunch with the large group of boy scouts. The tree looked eerie to me against the night sky, so I took a photo. I made my way up the campsite trail, barely visible now, and crawled into the tent. Just before passing out, I thought about where I was and how long it might be before I would have this kind of night sky again. I looked out the rain fly and saw that the cloudy sky was beginning to clear, so I set my watch for 10:30 PM, at which point I would awake and take a few long exposure shots of the starry night sky.

 

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My alarm sounded and I stumbled out into complete dark with camera, tripod, and headlamp. I flipped on my headlamp and began to set up. With the legs of the tripod out and the angle of the camera set, I moved on to adjust the shutter speed, but just as I was going to do that I heard a rather loud rustling sound in the brush to my right. Naturally, I turned my head toward the sound. My brand new, and extremely bright, LED headlamp instantly found a pair of eyes staring back at me. Even with the beam of light, it was hard to discern how far away the eyes were and how large the animal was. Being from south Louisiana, I assumed I was looking at some sort of medium-sized nocturnal rodent that was very close. As ridiculous as it might sound, my initial reaction was – something along the lines of a Raccoon. Then the animal moved. Its body came out from the brush and into the clearing of the campsite’s path. I still didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but then everything changed. A long, thick tail slowly uncurled, wagged a bit and then froze. My depth perception came into focus. The tail, taller than me and probably as thick as my arm, was no longer moving. The body was very large and not more than fifty feet away. The eyes that reflected straight back at me were from a large mountain lion, and I had its attention! Most guidebooks will tell you to “look large” and “throw rocks” at a mountain lion, but without thinking, I jumped right into my tent and doused my headlamp.

Scared out of my mind, I struggled with the camera – I couldn’t turn it off and therefore couldn’t turn off the light that it emitted. I was ready to crush it with a rock when I finally found the off switch. Then I turned to the door of the tent. I decided to leave the rain fly open. Actually, you have to reach way out of the tent to grab hold of the rain fly zipper. There was no way I was going to hang half of my body out of the tent at that moment, but I did grab the inner zipper. Predictably, the zipped snagged on a piece of tent material. I struggled with it for what felt like forever, finally closed the tent, and then froze. At first I thought my ears were deceiving me, but no, I heard something outside the tent! I couldn’t move. Nothing could have moved me. I just listened in horror as the mountain lion paced through the sandstone gravel of my campsite. Then a thought occurred to me. There was no doubt in my mind – I was going to be eaten by a mountain lion. The steps didn’t last very long, and I thought things might get better. After much waiting, I opened the largest blade on my multi-tool, placed the knife on my chest for easy access, and allowed myself to lay down on my back.

The silence was broken by the sound of rustling in the brush again. “What is it doing?” I murmured to myself over and over. Soon, I started to hear large rocks tumbling followed by more rustling in the grass. The situation was pure torture, and I didn’t think it could get much worse.

Nothing happened for several minutes. Then, a horrible sound, steps in the campsite again followed by sniffing. Sniffing! I can only compare it to something I’ve witnessed my dog do on countless occasions . Angela and I will be in the front room of the house when someone passes by on the sidewalk. Betsy, our dog, barks, sticks her nose right in the bottom crack of the door, and takes repetitive sniffs – three short sniffs in and then a longer sniff out. This happened over and over again, only I was in a tent, and the animal sniffing could kill me in one or two swift moves. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and again, I thought that this would be the end for me. I started to have thoughts of how I wished that I’d spent more time with family and friends and that I’d done more for my wife. I thought about the people that I was leaving behind, and I felt bad for leaving them. The sniffing eventually stopped. Time went by without incident. I looked at my watch and calculated nine hours until the sun.

After the sniffing incident, I started to shake uncontrollably. I knew that the shaking was not from cold – I was in shock. My mind and body were already exhausted from the day’s hike, and there was no room for this kind of stress. I knew that I should pull the sleeping bag over me, but I couldn’t convince myself to do it. Pulling a sleeping bag out of a stuff-sack is very loud, and I was trying to avoid all noise. I allowed the shaking to continue for at least twenty minutes before finally overpowering my mind. I covered myself with the sleeping bag. The warmth instantly helped and the shaking diminished. Still, I clutched the knife to my chest waiting for the inevitable.

I watched the clock all night, counting the minutes. I heard rocks tumbling and brush rustling all night. At one point, in the middle of the night, the silence was broken by the scariest sound I have ever heard – a large cat shriek followed by the sound of claws ripping something to pieces. It sounded like a cat fight in an alley, if the cat were 300 lbs. and the opponent were some sort of synthetic material like nylon. My initial thought was that the mountain lion had found my food stash and was ripping it apart. My second thought was, “Will it come looking for more here?” My third thought was, “How are the neighbors in campsite #1 doing?”

I continued to watch the clock for the rest of the night, and I continued to hear sounds for the rest of the night, rocks falling, brush rustling, and every now and then, pacing in the campsite. It never ended. I never slept.
Still, somehow I must not have been appealing to the lion. It did not eat me or my food. I would later find out, from a park shuttle driver, that the mountain lion may have attacked and killed a mule deer. That was possibly the roar and ripping sound that I heard. When the sun was up in full force I scooped up all my things and hightailed it over to camp #1. The whole way over I yelled out loud, “HEY! HEY! HEY!” just in case something was still watching me. I entered their campsite and found one of the young Mormons sitting on a hammock.
“Man am I glad to see you’re up,” I said. “You have no idea how bad a night I had.”
“Oh, we’re not up yet,” he said, “I slept out here on this hammock last night.”
I stared out at him, “You’re joking?”
“No, it was too hot in the tent, so I came out here. What was the problem at your site? Was your tent too hot also?”
“No, I saw into a mountain lion! It was in my campsite! It came back over and over again. I didn’t sleep at all.”
“Wow, that’s awesome!”
One at a time, the other campers slowly woke to my panicked voice. I explained what happened in detail and they were very understanding and extremely comforting. Not a single joke was cracked by the group. I informed them that I was not leaving the rim until they left the rim, that I was walking down with them. Thankfully, they were more than willing to accommodate. We would soon walk down to Angel’s Landing together. As they took care of various morning duties, I sat on a log, still shaking slightly. From their campsite I looked out over lush wooded peaks bathed in morning’s first light. This undisturbed blessing stretched as far as my eyes could see. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I couldn’t believe that I was alive.

 

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sunrise from campsite #1

 

Zion: The Narrows

On Monday morning I speed-hiked down the West Rim Trail (see the post from July 24, 2011). On the canyon floor, I shuttled to Watchman campground, set up camp, and filled my belly with a delicious Beef Ravioli MRE – one of the best yet! I crammed all electronics and paper documents into waterproof bags and stuffed those bags into my backpack. Today I would hike The Narrows. The trail would be wet, very wet. The following trail description of The Narrows is from the Zion National Park website:

The Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon,16 miles long, up to 2000 feet deep, and at times only 20-30 feet wide. In The Narrows, walking in the shadow of its soaring walls, sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens, can be an unforgettable wilderness experience.

It is not, however, a trip to be underestimated. Hiking the Narrows means hiking in the Virgin River. At least 60% of the hike is spent wading, walking, and sometimes swimming in the stream. There is no maintained trail; the route is the river. The current is swift, the water is cold, and the rocks underfoot are slippery. Flash flooding and hypothermia are constant dangers. Good planning, proper equipment, and sound judgment are essential for a safe and successful trip. Your safety is your responsibility. Weather forecasts, flash flood potential ratings, and stream reports are available at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center. Permits are not issued when the flow is greater than 120 cubic feet per second.

The following video is a collection of short movies captured in my four hour, out-and-back hike of The Narrows. In this slice, you may receive a better overall picture by viewing the video first.

Hiking the Narrows from Taylor Lasseigne on Vimeo.

 

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The Zion Adventure Company rents out these boots ($25) to hikers looking for a little added foot protection. These “boots” stabalize the ankle area and supposedly keep the foot completely dry – neoprene lining. The woman modeling these boots said they were, “a dream!”

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Zion: East Rim

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Fort Proctor – St. Bernard Parish, LA

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Katrina Memorial Cross

Over a year ago, Chris Esposito and I took advantage of some glorious weather by hauling our kayaks down to Braithwaite in St. Bernard Parish, LA. We paddled around in the canals for a few hours, dodging large alligators most of the time. On the drive back, we detoured south into St. Bernard Parish to find out what was at the end of Hwy. 46 – Shell Beach, LA.

Arriving at Shell Beach, we parked and were immediately drawn to the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. This shrine is in two parts. The Katrina Memorial Cross, designed by Arabi welder and fabricator Vincent LaBruzzo Sr., stands a few feet off shore. This stainless-steel crucifix was a hot-button issue in 2006. Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Joe Cook opposed the erection of the cross in a letter to parish officials, “Government promotion of a patently religious symbol on a public waterway is a violation of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits government from advancing a religion.” Parish president Henry “Junior” Rodriguez gave a frank and candid response, “They can kiss my ass.” Just in front of the cross on shore, the names of St. Bernard residents who died in Hurricane Katrina are etched into a slab of marble, “Bertha Acosta, Sarah Bosarge, Joyce Fonseca, Gladys Leblanc, Joseph Major, Emile Poissenot” and so many more, totaling 163 in all.

Then, Chris and I noticed a seemingly misplaced structure on the distant horizon. It looked like many of the forts in the region, but I knew nothing about one in this area. Once home, a few seconds of research revealed that this was Fort Proctor, a ruined civil-war era fort reclaimed by nature and only accessible by boat. Ruins only accessible by boat? Can you imagine a more titillating combination of words for a kayaker? The seed was planted. I simply had to get to that fort.

 

 

The thought of paddling out to Fort Proctor festered for over a year. I shared the notion with friend and coworker Woodlief “Wood” Thomas, and he was immediately 110% in. Actually, his tenacity to “storm the fort” is probably what kept the idea alive for so long.

Finally fifteen months later on May 15, 2011, Wood, Chris, and I set out for Fort Proctor. To reach the fort we would cross the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO and pronounced “Mister Go” by the locals), navigate a small stretch of Bayou Yscolskey, and finally paddle a few hundred feet into Lake Borgne. Aside from the strong wind gusts, modest chop, and constant marine traffic on the MRGO, the real challenge was moving three people with two kayaks. Plan A, Wood riding in my aft compartment, was nixed as soon as we saw the turbulence of the MRGO. Plan B required Wood to swim alongside my kayak – also thrown out by the group. Plans C and D escape me, but Chris at last developed an ingenious Plan E – Chris and I would paddle across the MRGO. Upon reaching the banks of Bayou Yscolskey, we would then tie his smaller boat to my boat, and I would tow his boat back to Shell Beach, where Wood would then paddle across the MRGO. The plan went off without a hitch. Once the group was fully assembled on the banks of Bayou Yscolskey, Wood was then able to walk and swim along the bank, all the way to the fort.

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Launch at Shell Beach, cross the MRGO, navigate Bayou Yscolskey, and paddle a few hundred feet into Lake Borgne to Fort Proctor.

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General P. G. T Beauregard

Designed to defend New Orleans from the Union Army, Fort Proctor was constructed under the supervision of General P. G. T. Beauregard in 1856. Also known as Fort Beauregard and Beauregard’s Castle, the fort was originally located about 150 feet inland with a rail yard on its northern end. Today it is approximately 230 feet from the shore, surrounded by Lake Borgne. The stronghold never got a chance to prove its might. In its day, the fort was created with cutting edge building technologies such as poured concrete and rolled iron I-beams, but by the outbreak of the Civil War, the building was already nearly obsolete. There were plans to outfit the fort with twelve 32-pounder seacoast guns, three 18-pounder guns, three 12-pounder guns, eight flank Howitzers and eleven 8″ heavy seacoast Howitzers, yet construction was never completed due to hurricane damage. Fort Proctor was never even officially garrisoned, and in desperation, Confederate soldiers blew the levees near the fort. Water rushed into the structure and rendered it useless.

Before Lake Borgne fully claimed the fort and before the construction of the MRGO, Fort Proctor was still accessible by land. Easy access made this abandoned shell a teen hangout in the 1940s and 50s. Maybe one of these teens is responsible for crafting the wooden ladder we found in the fort. Searching through Louisiana fishing message boards, I found that Fort Proctor is a great place to catch Redfish and Speckled Trout, especially between the rocks and the marsh. In 1978 the fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, a large-stone levee protects the entire perimeter of the fort from large Lake Borgne waves, but the water finds its way in. We slugged through about a foot of water throughout the fort, occasionally sinking shin-deep into mud. Besides the rock wall, the only other things protecting Fort Proctor are alleged ghostly lovers. In a New Orleans Times Picayune article dated December 28, 1975, Chris Segura notes that, “According to local legend, the fort is now defended by the ghosts of a one-armed soldier and his bayou-born lover. They dance upon the aged walls in the forms of blue flames.” Segura continues, “Scientists say that the balls are gases rising from the marsh. Believers say spirits take many forms, use any vehicle – even the natural gases of the marshland.”

Today we explore the mysteries of Fort Proctor. However useless it was to the Confederacy and however futile its construction, I will say that this fortress has stood up to time quite well, considering geographic location. Proctor didn’t see action in the Civil War, but wind, hurricanes, storm surge, and teenagers continuously breached the fortification. With that in mind, I think she looks amazing for her age – 154.

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Chris Esposito (left) and Woodlief Thomas (right) approach the ruins.

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Chris Esposito is first to scale the wall

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"1856" photo by Woodlief Thomas

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Taylor Lasseigne - photo by Woodlief Thomas

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Woodlief Thomas

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This column is connected to the base by one brick!

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Chris Esposito

 

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Chris Esposito

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photo by Woodlief Thomas

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After some time in the fort, we began the one-mile trip back to Shell Beach. Knowing that we would have to repeat the kayak relay, three guys and two boats, we started back long before sunset. Wood, on foot, went ahead of Chris and I. We paddled up Bayou Yscolskey as Wood scampered along the bank. When the brush became impassable, he took off his shoes, waded into the bayou, and swam 220 feet to the other side. Wood commented on how strong the current was in Bayou Yscolskey and how the swimming was a lot harder than it looked. Once across, he returned the shoes to his feat and again began to traverse the bank. It was at this point that the Wildlife and Fisheries boat, carrying three uniformed men, approached our party. The agents surveyed our one if by land and two if by sea situation and probably assumed we were in trouble, “Do you guys need some help?” Chris clarified that we were OK, that we were simply short a boat, and he explained the kayak-towing relay that was about to take place. The Wildlife and Fisheries agents paused and then offered Wood a ride back in the boat. There wasn’t much hesitation on our part. The three of us exchanged what I believe was a look of slight relief, and Wood jumped in the boat. Normally, I wouldn’t want a marine adventure to end with a team member in the custody of Wildlife and Fisheries, but this wasn’t an arrest. This wasn’t a rescue. This was simply a more convenient way to get back to the car, and we were all fine with the decision. The lift cut our return time in half.

 

As I loaded my boat onto the car, a thought surfaced. I thought about how impossible the trip seemed in the beginning – too few boats and extremely windy conditions. There was talk of scrubbing the whole thing, but we didn’t. We made it happen, and the payoff was immense. This Fort Proctor adventure is my favorite Louisiana daytrip to date. Still, there is at least one reason to return. Next time we’ll visit the illuminated one-armed ghost and his lover, after sunset.

#004: Football Stories

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Football StoriesBiloxi, MS  – April 27th, 2011

Slices of America Podcast 004 – Coach Holmes of Tallassee, Alabama (now residing in Biloxi, MS) talks about his career in football – both as a player and as a coach. Recorded in the food court of the Edgewater Plaza Shopping Center in Biloxi, MS on April 26, 2011. Great football stories!

Biking New Orleans, LA to Biloxi, MS

This is the story of a hastily thrown-together cycling trip from New Orleans, LA to Biloxi, MS on April 26th, 2011, the Monday after Easter. As usual, I underestimated the amount of time it would take to pack for such a trip, a mistake that results in little sleep – maybe four hours! My day begins long before dawn – 5:00 AM. I stuff everything on my checklist into two large panniers, kiss my wife, and roll out.


View NOLA to Biloxi by Bike in a larger map

Yellow indicates main route. Orange and blue mark last-minute changes to the plan. Click, double-click, and drag the map to interact or open the larger map.

As a cyclist, the thing that troubled me the most about my route from New Orleans to Biloxi was the crossing of the Industrial Canal into New Orleans East, a hindrance that would make or break me within the first half hour. After much deliberation on the subject, I decided to take the route that was longest yet safest – the Seabrook Bridge near Lake Pontchartrain. This turned out to be very easy, and I had a good laugh upon reaching the other side. Still, I was quite relieved to be in New Orleans East. Then, the wild dogs showed up!

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Seabrook Bridge - easy crossing for a bike

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From the Seabrook Bridge

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From the Seabrook Bridge

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From the Seabrook Bridge

The first wild dog attack happened on Franklin Avenue, before crossing into the East. Three tiny but menacing pups pounced onto the road. With a bloodthirsty look in their eyes, these small Ewok-like creatures nipped at my ankles for no less than six blocks.

Wild dog encounter number two was thankfully only a very scary close call. In New Orleans East I passed an Autozone store and took a left onto Morrison Ave. I remember exchanging morning greetings with a gentleman hanging out outside of the Autozone. Moments later, I lifted my head to survey the road and I spotted a pack of four extremely large pitbulls trotting towards me! Had these dogs been lifting weights? These could have been the nicest dogs in the world, but I wasn’t sticking around to find out. I turned the bike around and headed back towards the Autozone. The gentleman was still standing outside. I warned him about the wild pack of dogs, and he started for the store. I attempted to make a block around the problem, but only ran into dead ends. I had to try Morrison again. I carefully made my way back to the Autozone where the man, still outside, assured me that the dogs had gone into a neighborhood, “You’re all clear!” Well, that’s good for me but bad for someone else in that neighborhood. How do the folks out here deal with these wild dogs roaming their streets? I continued up Morrison, but not until after I had crossed the canal median. The pack had moved on.

About a half an hour later, on Hwy 90, a very large mutt came screaming across an abandoned lot, charged right up to me, and nipped at my heals very briefly. Luckily, he was not interested in my very loud yelling. My heart was pounding, and I stopped to gather myself. I thought very seriously about calling it quits. I thought about buying a can of mace. Then, I thought about how I was wasting time, and I simply kept going.

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Vietnamese-owned shops in New Orleans East

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Venetian Isles from Jerry and Charlotte's deck (thanks for the coffee)

As I continued east on Hwy 90, I passed over several bridges. Some of the bridges were small, leaving little room for a cyclist. Luckily, these small bridges were typically also short in length, so I simply waited for traffic to pass and quickly crossed.

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Hwy 90 bridge crossing at Chef Menteur Pass

Pictured below is Fort Macomb at Chef Pass. The purpose of the fortress was to protect the Chef Menteur Pass which connected Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and consequently, the Gulf of Mexico. This stronghold was built in 1822, garrisoned by the Confederate States of America in January of 1861, and then retaken by Union forces the next year. The following is from the Fort Macomb Wikipedia entry:

In 1867 the barracks caught fire, after which the fort was largely abandoned. It was decommissioned in 1871. The fort and its land are now owned by the State of Louisiana. While some efforts were made to open it to limited tourism in the late 20th century, the decaying condition of the fort was judged too hazardous for public visits. The similar but better preserved Fort Pike some 10 miles (16 km) away at the Rigolets has been the regional example of a coastal fort open to visitors. A portion of the fort’s old moat has been turned into a canal as part of a small marina. Unfortunately, the wakes from incoming and outgoing boats is wearing away the outer wall of the fort and accelerating the structural damage.

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Fort Macomb, as seen from the Chef Menteur Pass bridge

Saint Catherine’s Island/Petites Coquilles (see images below) is a spit of land between Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Saint Catherine on Hwy 90. On this narrow tract, sometimes less than 800 feet wide, many new post-Katrina fishing camps and homes are under construction. * Side-note: This also happens to be where 1950’s blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield met her untimely end on June 29, 1967, as her vehicle struck the back of a stopped tractor-trailer.

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new post-Katrina construction

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bridge crossing Rigolets Pass

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Fort Pike (pictured below) is located at the northeast corner of Saint Catherine’s Island/Petites Coquilles, just before the Rigolets Pass. Like Fort Macomb, Pike was constructed to protect the water routes into New Orleans.

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Fort Pike from the Rigolets Pass Bridge

The following is from the official Fort Pike website:

Begun in 1819 and completed in 1826, Fort Pike was named for the explorer and soldier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813) whose name is also attached to Pike’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains. Fort Pike is the first of the Third System fortifications, a group of brick and masonry structures built between 1816 and 1867. The fort was designed to withstand attack from land or sea.

The original armament of Fort Pike consisted of 32-pounder and 24-pounder cannons; the exact number of each type is unknown. At various times the fort held other types of cannons. The wartime garrison was approximately 400 men; in peacetime it varied between one and 80 soldiers. Fort Pike’s role in the military affairs of the United States prior to the Civil War varied considerably. During the Seminole Wars in the 1830s, Fort Pike served as a staging area for many troops en route to Florida, and also as a collection point for hundreds of Seminole prisoners and their black slaves who were being transported to Oklahoma. Cannons were removed from some of the casemates to convert them to cells. At one point in this conflict, only 66 soldiers guarded 253 Indian and black prisoners.

Similarly, during the Mexican War in the 1840s, Fort Pike was a stopover for soldiers bound for Texas and Mexico. In between these wars, Fort Pike was largely abandoned and left in the care of a single ordnance sergeant.

In 1861, the silence of Fort Pike was broken. Before the actual start of the Civil War, the Louisiana militia captured the fort. Confederates held it until the Union forces took New Orleans in 1862, whereupon the Confederates evacuated Fort Pike. Union forces then reoccupied the fort, using it as a base for raids along the Gulf coast and Lake Pontchartrain area and as a protective outpost for New Orleans. The Union also used Fort Pike as a training center, where former slaves were taught to use heavy artillery. These troops became part of the United States Colored Troops, who played an important role in the outcome of many battles, including the siege at Port Hudson. Yet, in spite of all this activity, not a single cannonball was ever fired in battle from Fort Pike.

Fort Pike was again left to the care of an ordnance sergeant from 1871 until it was officially abandoned in 1890. In 1972 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, an honorary designation for significant historic sites.

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Fort Pike with Rigolets Pass in the foreground and Lake Saint Catherine in the background

The trip continues east into Mississippi, towards Pearlington. The terrain gets very swampy resulting in many more small bridge crossings. Also, I noticed a trend as I passed through places with “Island” in the name: Prevost Island, Weems Island, Honey Island, Desert Island, and Brown’s Island. After the trip, I looked up these locations on a map. To my surprise, not a single one is an actual island, simply low-lying marsh riddled with bayous and canals.

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Islands? Click to elarge.

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Just past Pearlington, MS, at trip mile #45, I turned off of Hwy 90 onto Lower Bay Road. This stretch was gorgeous with smooth roads, heavily wooded forest on both sides, and no cars in sight. The route meandered down into Bay St. Louis, where I ravenously tore into chicken and biscuits at Kent and Sue’s Quick stop.

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Kent and Sue's Quick stop - Bay St. Louis, MS

In Bay St. Louis, MS, I paused on Lakeshore Drive, just before the train tracks, to take a photograph of Lakeshore Baptist Church. The church steeple stood oddly on the ground beside it. A very nice woman, tending to her garden across the street from the church, explained that Hurricane Katrina had destroyed the original church, and all that was left was the steeple. The building pictured below is a temporary home for the congregation, and when construction on the new church is complete, they will place the old steeple back on top. The woman across the street asked where I had biked from, and I briefly explained my trip. She unflinchingly offered me a bottle of water, as if we’d known each other for years. Some might say, “It’s just a bottle of water”, but I was stunned by her trust and generosity. I had pointed my bicycle east, left the comfort of my home, biked 60+ miles into a still-devastated community, and I was being offered free water. Maybe I was feeling the effects of an extended cycling trip, but this simple offering touched me deeply.

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Lakeshore Baptist Church

The images below are depictions of the Lakeshore Baptist Church before/after Hurricane Katrina, images are from the website Rebuild Lakeshore: a ministry of Lakeshore Baptist Church

 

And finally, at approximately trip mile #62, I reached the beach near the Silver Slipper Casino in Bay St. Louis. The remainder of my trip would be spent biking the wide beach sidewalks – all the way to Biloxi (with the exception of the Bay St. Louis Bridge). With the winds steady at 10mph and gusting to over 20mph, sand quickly found it’s way into everything: water bottle, shoes, eyes, pants, gears, phone, and camera. With the probability of 40 more miles of this sandblasting, I decided to change into long pants.

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beach near the Silver Slipper Casino in Bay St. Louis

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Following the beach in Bay St. Louis was easy at first, and then I ran into a bit of ongoing construction. Crews are still working on the road, seawall, and sidewalk. With that said, the road is open, and the path is also navigable by bike. The beach road leads all the way up to the brand new Bay St. Louis Bridge. Another victim of Hurricane Katrina, the Bay St. Louis Bridge is an example of how to make the best out of a bad situation. In short, Bay St. Louis rebuilt the bridge, but they widened it significantly, adding a protected, separate ten foot wide lane for pedestrians, turning this two-mile stretch of concrete into a park. Every tenth of a mile, a marker reports how far you’ve traveled. This is accompanied by permanent artwork depicting local sea life. I was fully impressed. Louisiana, take notes.

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Bay St. Louis Bridge or the Leo W. Seal, Jr. Memorial Bridge

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mile marker and art work / each marker has a different scene

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Bay St. Louis Bridge - cyclist's dream!

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Bay St. Louis Bridge - cyclist's dream!

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more Katrina-related ruins in Pass Christian, MS

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Shaggy's in Long Beach, MS, where I had some very tasty fried catfish strips for second lunch.

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from Shaggy's back porch

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Gulfport, MS water tower

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Union Pacific / Water Tower / School Carnival

If you were to pick up a Long Beach/Gulfport/Biloxi paper, or tune in to local talk radio, you might notice that “sand” is currently a buzzword in the region. Here’s what I learned. The sand on the Mississippi coastline is not Mississippi sand – it’s Florida sand. We’re talking over 30 miles of beach, from Pass Christian to Biloxi alone, covered in Florida sand – that’s a lot of sand! Now imagine that you’re a taxpayer in Mississippi, and you’re being told that clean, white sandy beaches attract exponentially more tourists than naturally occurring, not so shiny Mississippi beaches, like the ones that I remember seeing here as a kid – which were quite an improvement over Louisiana beaches. The taxpayers are sold on white sand as an investment for tourism, and sand is brought in from Florida. But then something happens in the spring. The wind blows, and the sands move onto the road. Quagmire initiated.

Sand on Hwy 90 is a problem. Cars don’t handle sand well. Wheels slip, cars turn without warning, brakes become less reliable, and air systems clog. Secondly, the sand must be removed from the road, which means that construction crews working around the clock, block entire sections of a very busy, sand-covered highway. Thirdly, the sand being scooped up off the road can not simply go back on the beach, not with all those toxic car chemicals, so the sand is loaded into trucks and dumped into a Mississippi landfill. This Florida sand has quite a life cycle, right? By the way, we’re talking about a lot of wasted sand. One Gulfport news story reports up to 6,000 yards of sand hauled off per day. While I don’t quite understand why anyone would want to measure sand by the yard, I do know that it sounds like tons.

In my humble opinion, I wonder why there is so much sand on the beach. In some of the images below, you will notice stairs that lead from the sidewalk by the road, down to the beach. In many cases, these stairs are completely covered. Why so much sand? Engineers are attempting to plant dunes and erect special fences to block some of the runaway sand. Hopefully, something proves useful. Until then, maybe Mississippi should hold off on the importing of sand and shift that cash to something more useful, like pumping in pretty Florida water. Good luck, Mississippi!

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Florida sand in Mississippi

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Here, you can see the stairs.

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Here, no stairs, but the'ye down there.

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Crews work to remove sand from the road.

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Too much sand!

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Bird sanctuary

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Day one ended at the home of friends Jinger and Dave in Gulfport, MS. It was so nice to see them again and tons of fun to get some time with the little ones. Also, I was super excited when Jinger cooked up black eyed peas, smothered greens, and okra for dinner. Shock and awe!

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Friends Jinger and Dave, with their kids Henry and Ruby.

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Henry and Ruby

On day two, my dream of taking a boat out to Ship Island was crushed by inclement weather – thanks again, wind. Instead, I cruised up the beach to Biloxi to see what I could find.

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Many of the area trees were killed by Katrina, so they became a sculptor's blank canvas.

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I bet they didn't care what color the sand was.

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Beau Rivage

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Mary Mahoney's, one of the oldest restaurants in the country - circa 1737!

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I had lunch here, at the Ole Biloxi Schooner.

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Interesting interpretation of a Catfish Po-boy at the Ole Biloxi Schooner - fish was great, but the bread was hard.

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"Antique & Streetrods For Sale"

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Deer Island; about 600 feet from shore - I really wanted to swim out there.

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Katrina Memorial

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Carved and painted oak

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A home in Biloxi. Notice the Katrina-related sign on the upper right reading, "water line".

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Highway 90 bridge leading to Ocean Springs - maybe next time.

I recorded a conversation with Coach Holmes of Tallassee, Alabama (now residing in Biloxi) as he discussed his career in football – both as a player and as a coach. The Edgewater Plaza Shopping Center in Biloxi, MS was a little noisy, but the stories are worth it. To hear this story and others please subscribe to the Slices of America Podcast.

Funny Tombow One Man Band

Street performer on Bourbon Street that calls himself “Funny Tombow One Man Band”. The guy ROCKS by employing all appendages. Here’s what he says on his website, “When I Was travering in US & Canada for looking for my future, then lot of people said me ‘You’re FUNNY.’ When I w…as kid, my nick name was Tombow (mean’s ‘Dragon fly’) So I decide to my One Man Band’s name is. Future + Past = FUNNY TOMBOW”

Grand Isle, LA – Day 47 of the BP/Deepwater Horizon Disaster

by Dave Rhodes and Josh Pitts / June 5, 2010 /

A trip down to Grand Isle, Louisiana, to see how things are developing, contribute a bit to the local economy, talk to locals, show some support, and try and make a surreal catastrophe happening a few hours away more tangible. Timing was interesting, sandwiched between Obama’s visit & Jindal’s.

Photographs by Dave Rhodes and Josh Pitts.

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The worst part is the part you can’t get from the photos… the smell of oil and dispersants. It’s awful. Imagine what the marine life are going through.

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You can see the different stages of oil coming into shore. And it keeps coming. While camping, we talked to a girl who has been cleaning twelve hours a day for three weeks straight. But until the leak is completely stopped, the oil is going to keep coming ashore.

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We talked to a bunch of locals while on Grand Isle. They are scared the media is going to leave and everyone is going to forget them. Some can’t fish and are out of a job. Other’s just want there beach and way of life back.

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Dave Rhodes moved to New Orleans via Los Angeles in the fall of 2009. He is focusing on his visual art career and currently has a screenplay in negotiations back in Los Angeles. To see his art you may visit RhodesArt.com.

Josh Pitts is a freelance web designer. Visit his website at sideways-designs.com.

BP / Deepwater Horizon Disaster – Oil Reaches Grand Isle

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Approximate size and location of the oil slick on May 22nd, 2010. Image taken from NOLA.com. Slick sizes are based on flyover information and NOAA trajectories.

A month after the Transocean / BP / Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes, burns, and begins to perpetually leak oil into the Gulf of Mexico, I walk onto the beach at Grand Isle, unprepared for what I am about to witness.

In the first weeks of the disaster, I tracked the mass of oil on the internet. In the Gulf South, we’re quite proficient at tracking events along our coast. Tidal fluctuations and strong winds pushed the tragedy north and east, painting the wetlands of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, and the Chandeleur Islands. As a native of lower Lafourche Parish, I couldn’t help but think, “At least the oil isn’t traveling west of the Mississippi River. At least the people of Jefferson, Lafourche, and Terrebone are safe.” Then on May 7th the winds changed, and my moment of optimistic naiveté returned to haunt me – oil moved west of the river and into the aforementioned parishes.

Approximate size and location of the oil slick on May 22nd, 2010. Image taken from NOLA.com. Slick sizes are based on flyover information and NOAA trajectories.

Today, the beaches of Grand Isle are officially closed to the public, but our team finds a way in. I am part of an impromptu oil sample gathering mission spearheaded by Andy Baker (Coastal Programs Assistant for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation). Joining us are Dean Wilson (very committed activist for Atchafalaya Basinkeeper) and Christopher Esposito (background in Coastal Oceanography and currently a Masters Student of Coastal Sciences at the University of New Orleans). I’m tagging along with these environmental experts to document the day’s work through photographs and GPS data.

 

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Andy Baker reads the morning's headline, "Original Plans for Dredging Changed".

With the oil coming ashore, Jefferson Parish sheriffs were trying to clear the beach. They were very nice to citizens while obviously increasingly desperate and forceful. On the right you see a Jefferson Parish deputy trying to explain the situation. They are obviously the foot soldiers on the ground representing the local interests. It was just hours after this that the Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office began to commandeer BP’s idle boats.

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Before we even reached the shore, we ran into Mrs. Louise Anne from Atlanta, GA (left) and Brenda Bertrand from Gonzales, LA (right). Both women, originally from Leeville, were in town for their 50th high school anniversary. Louise was very proud that all but six of her remaining Golden Meadow High School classmates were in attendance. She also noted, “We didn’t cancel because of the oil. In fact, we had a great time on the island!”.

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I thought we would spend most of the day looking for tar balls, when in fact the beach was littered with them. It was almost impossible to walk on the shore without stepping on a tar ball. The misplaced oil droplets were abundant and varied greatly in consistency and size.

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Andy reports, “Part of it was solid and part of it dripped onto his my hand. The oil is weathering, being changed by the sun and water and waves as it comes ashore from floating in the Gulf. There are a lot of light hydrocarbons that are evaporating in the heat. In some cases, the tar balls really look like mud or clay. Actually last month on Ship Island we saw beached balls that WERE actually clay. This is not clay. It’s somewhat mixed with sand and mixed with floating biological material, marsh and sticks and other things get mashed up in there. Some of them were like clay and some were less weathered.”

There are hundreds of oil rigs very close to the shore. At night, the horizon lights up like a city on the water. Any one of them could have an accident, but it’s much easier to contain in shallow water. The disaster is one hundred miles away from Grand Isle, but the extreme depth makes all the difference.

 

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A caravan of officials whizzes by.

The most appropriate description I’ve heard for this kind of tar ball came from an NPR correspondent who referred to them as “melted caramels”. This is an appropriate comparison due to the color and texture.

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Liquid oil – Generally the more liquid and less weathered the oil is, the more toxic it’s going to be and the more it will mix with sand and vegetation. This is an example of an emulsion – when two liquids are not chemically mixed but finely divided into droplets like mayonnaise.

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In this photograph, you can see several layers of weathered crude, including a light sheen on the water.

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Andy explains our presence to a Grand Isle policeman. Once he found out that we were interested in sampling the crude, the officer was very pleasant and allowed us to continue our observations.

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Burned and light for a rock, but solid. The fires, or controlled burns, are changing the oil also. Andy Baker noted, “We found some of those styrofoam-like blocks that I’m sure were burned oil. The burning of the oil basically burns off the lighter hydrocarbons and leaves the asphaltenes, the heavier hydrocarbons, but they can only burn when they’re on the surface and concentrated enough.”

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More tar balls further down the beach. Andy indicates that these photos, “show clumpy tar balls that are standing up, showing that they are solid and mixing with sand.” If you didn’t know better, you might think that the beach was littered with rocks.

These beach-goers came from New Iberia to rent a camp for the weekend. Bad timing. They didn’t seem to care that the beach was closed.

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Dean Wilson, with the non-profit Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, met us just before noon. We convened at what is typically the Tarpon Rodeo Pavilion. Now, the pavilion acts as headquarters for BP, Jefferson Parish Deputies, EPA, national guard, and other government entities.

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Earlier on the beach, we were given a hard time by Jefferson Parish deputies and Grand Isle police. We came to the conclusion that gaining access to sensitive areas of the island might come easier with credentials. Attempting to become bona fide on Grand Isle might be the most fascinating aspect of our trip. First we spoke to national guardsmen. They denied us entry to the pavilion and suggested that we check in at the community center, with BP representatives. We rolled the dice with the BP reps but were denied again and directed to find “the major” at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. We found no major, but two gentlemen there informed us that their hands were tied. BP was calling the shots on Grand Isle. The Wildlife and Fisheries workers urged us to return to the Tarpon Rodeo Pavilion and request to speak to a Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputy. Two representatives from the Sheriff’s office came out to meet us. They seemed to sincerely want to help us, but in the end, “The system is not yet available for generating passes on site for scientific and media-related entities.” We were basically told, “Come back tomorrow”. Andy sums it up well, “Exploring the different agencies by trying to get permission to go on the beach was really the most interesting part of the whole day and the most illuminating part about what was really going on.”

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Returning to the pavilion for another go at attaining credentials. The Jefferson Parish Emergency Management mobile command center is visible on the right side.

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I was very surprised to find Grand Isle State Park open to the public. With that said, the beach was still off limits, leaving only the pier and observation tower fully accessible. On the steps to the observation tower we met AP photographer Patrick Semansky, out of New Orleans. Sadly, even this professional photographer was getting some of the same run-around that we were! On the pier we witnessed many pelicans and dolphins, both in great danger as the coastal waters turn red with crude.

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View of Grand Isle from the Grand Isle State Park pier, looking west

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AP photographer Patrick Semansky

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We noticed these men earlier, wearing hardhats and life jackets. Now, off of work for the day, they were kicking back and enjoying the beautiful weather. Andy worried about their well-being, “I hope the guys doing cleanup are keeping notes about what they encounter everyday as they may need it in future lawsuits. I’m glad people are getting work, but you know these guys are being exposed to poisonous toxins with really minimal protection.”

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After completely failing to obtain credentials we decide to hit the beach “guerilla style”. Upon returning to the same beach from the morning, Andy noted, “There was noticeably more oil in the afternoon. The oil at the wrack line was much more foamy and red”. The wrack line runs along the shore and is marked by debris that washes up from the gulf. In the afternoon, the beach was littered with even more tar balls, waves with a red hue crested and crashed ashore. Andy began taking samples of solid oil on the beach and floating red oil from the water.

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Christopher Esposito walks the beach at Grand Isle, looking for new forms of washed up oil.

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If you look at the waves on the left, below the rig, you can see red oil.

 

 

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Some of the oil is going to sink and some is neutrally buoyant. This is partly due to the dispersants, and partly due to emulsification.

 

After collecting samples from the beach, we started back for the car. When we crossed over the levee, a gentleman greeted us from his raised porch. Before long his wife appeared and they invited us up for a better view of the approaching red tide.

Marline and Tommy Chappell own and manage the Blue Dolphin Inn on Grand Isle. Like most residents and business owners on Grand Isle, their property was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Just as they were completing repairs from that storm three years later, Hurricane Gustave came barreling through and erased most of their progress. Many people would call it quits right there, but the Chappell’s are tough as nails. Completing all the repairs themselves, they picked up the pieces one more time. The last rental unit was completed about a month ago, but the Chappells didn’t even have time to celebrate. Who wants to rent a room with a view of tar balls? In the last month, Marline says that she has cancelled at least one hundred reservations. At approximately $100 a night, that brings their losses to $10,000. Marlene said that this was supposed to be the season where everything would be fixed.

Before the Chappells called us up to their porch, they were using binoculars to view a very large patch of oil as it floated closer and closer to shore. They were wondering if this was the final blow to drive them and Grand Isle out of business, maybe even the whole coast. Somehow, they were still smiling.

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Blue Dolphin Inn

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Marline and Tommy Chappell

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Tommy Chappell shows Chris Esposito where to look to see the large sheen of oil in the Gulf.

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Tommy and Marline Chappell are in fact "salt of the earth", but as the good book says, "if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men."

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As we left the island, we crossed the bridge and observed oil floating in the pass. Notice the boat filled with absorption pads and the booms only cutting off part of the pass.

Word had gotten around that a tanker truck was sucking up oil on the other side of the bridge, and this marked our last stop for the day. We pulled off the highway to see what was going on. Indeed there was a large tanker truck, marked “Liquid Vac”, taking in oil from the pass. Also, this was the only place on the whole island where we witnessed cleanup in progress. After a few photos and an attempt to take samples we were ushered to the national guardsmen across the street by the foreman. Andy was able to acquire a few samples from the other side of Highway 1.

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Liquid Vac tanker sucking oil from the pass.

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The business end of the tanker's hose is a messy situation.

“This is the only cleanup we saw all day, near the bridge on the west side of the island. This cut is the tidal pass. I got shut down from actually sampling on the job site. I could see some red oil between the containment boom and the absorbent boom. You can see in the picture of the plastic bag that it just coats everything, so even the stuff you use to clean it up has to be cleaned up. The tanker was sucking up oil and probably processing it and possibly refining it back down. Some will be hazardous toxic waste and some is going to be processed and turned back into industrial material” – from Andy Baker’s notes.

Andy acquires and bags his last sample of the day. In my final conversation with Andy he sums up our final stop, “We did actually get the last sample legitimately. The tanker guys sent us over to the other side of the road to the national guard, and they allowed us to simply grab a sample. The samples went to Pace Analytical in St. Rose, LA.”

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This stop at the west end of the island was our last attempt at taking samples. We did try to reach Fourchon Beach, but we were turned around at the final bridge by a harbor policeman. In our last ditch effort to obtain credentials, we stopped in at the Port Commission office. A cop eating an early dinner with three inmates in orange jumpsuits pointed us up a flight of stairs. There, we got the same run-around as before.

On the drive back to New Orleans, Andy, Chris, and I talked about some of the options that officials were currently weighing, as the oil continues to spill into the gulf. The booms are not working, certainly not as a permanent solution. Every time I see a boom, it has oil on both sides. More drastic solutions to the problem are being looked at at right now such as: the creation of one solid barrier island wall and the stoppage of tidal inlets. Chris Esposito talks in depth about these methods in his notes:

First, some background. Offshore of the barrier islands, the sea floor takes on a characteristic steepness, or slope, which is mostly dictated by the prevailing wave climate and the type of available sediment. If the system undergoes some shock that changes the slope of the sea floor, but the wave climate and sediment remain constant, the sea floor will eventually return to its original slope.

One of the worst parts to the original plan was to dig a large trench offshore of the barrier islands and use the excavated material to build this berm. This trench would be the shock that I talked about above, and the result would be for the system to return to its equilibrium shape. Exactly how the island would return to its equilibrium shape is not something that I know how to predict accurately, but there’s a serious risk that the island would basically sink into the sea as the system borrowed sediments from uphill to fill in the trench. To the best of my knowledge, this trench is no longer a part of the plan.

Tidal Inlets. A second potentially risky plan would be to close large numbers of tidal inlets. The tide comes in because the water level in the gulf is higher than the water level behind the barrier islands. Closing the inlets doesn’t change that. It just maintains the difference in water level because the tide can’t come in. But the situation wouldn’t be stable any more, meaning that the high water would eventually, somehow, find a way to the low water. Would it break through the new barriers? Would it break through an existing island? Would it scour existing tidal channels deeper to accommodate the extra flow?? Nobody knows! But it’s a guarantee that the tide would come in somehow.

I should point out here that the reason that so many scientists are not behind this plan is at least in part because we have no idea what’s in it. There are some inlets that it would probably be completely harmless to fill in, such as cuts caused by recent hurricanes. But nobody seems to know whether the plan is to just fill in those cuts, or to fill cuts in on a wider scale.

My biggest worry about this plan is not that it will directly harm the barrier island system. I think that there are people out there in the various agencies (DWF, USGS, USACOE, etc.) making sure that “do no harm” is priority number one. I’ve heard that the trench idea, for example, was nixed by USGS pretty quickly. My biggest worry is that a poorly thought out plan like this will set back any real progress towards developing a barrier island management strategy by years. If we spend $250 million building some goofy pile of mud now, and it washes into the sea without offering a single bit of hurricane protection, and without helping the oil situation very much either, how are we supposed to convince anybody at any level of government that we can do this properly next time? I would think that this plan effectively kills a properly thought out barrier island management plan for at least a decade.

This oil spill could actually provide a great opportunity to develop a well thought out, properly funded plan for managing the barrier island system. Right now BP owes a great deal to coastal Louisiana. In addition to paying out fishermen for lost catch and compensating oystermen for spoiled beds, BP is going to be responsible for an enormous cleanup. It’s not that big of a stretch for Louisiana to decide that the money that BP would spend on a cleanup might be better-spent jump-starting a coastal management plan. If BP had already shelled out $250 million for a plan that didn’t work, it would be an awful lot harder to squeeze more money out of them for a workable plan.

After a day at Grand Isle, I am left with more questions than answers. Who is in charge of Grand Isle? Why hasn’t BP descended on the disaster with a blitzkrieg of environmental clean-up crews? What is the future of Grand Isle, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast? How do you measure a disaster of this proportion? How do you explain to your children and grandchildren why people don’t fish anymore? Can you replace a lost heritage? Hopefully, we’re on the cusp of a solution, yet I can’t help but feel that irrevocable damage has already been done.

Check out BP/Deepwater Horizon Disaster – Report From Plaquemines by Woodlief Thomas for an account of events in Plaquemines Parish just a day after our Grand Isle trip.

Tunica Falls, MS

Another New Year presents itself, and she’s escorted by the same old companions: hissing fireworks, the unfathomable lyrics of Auld Lang Syne, gaudy street parades, steaming cabbage with black-eyed peas, and of course those delicate pledges-to-oneself that we call New Year’s resolutions. All of these timeless traditions constitute the norm on New Year’s Day. The question is, does January 1st still have room for new traditions? In this brief day trip, my friend Dane and I travel to south Mississippi to hike the bluffs, creek beds, and primitive paths of the Clark Creek Natural Area ( also known as Tunica Falls ), and if all goes to plan we may even establish a new tradition for the new year – a walk in the woods.

Dane picked me up early, just as the sun was coming up on a cold new year’s day. We stopped at McDonalds in Metairie for a couple of bacon, egg, and cheese McGriddles then motored about 130 miles up the river, through Baton Rouge, just over the Louisiana/Mississippi border to Pond, Mississippi. Dane took a left onto Pond Rd, crossed a cattle guard, and passed the 100+ year-old general store. His Ford Ranger rolled to a stop at the trailhead parking lot.

And so we began, from the get-go, to hike uphill. Out of shape, my legs and lungs were immediately exhausted by the first few hills on the trail, and one after another, the hills just kept on coming. The Clark Creek Natural Area, on 700 acres of rolling land in Wilkinson County, boasts 50 waterfalls ranging from 10-30 feet in height. The landscape is less indicative of Louisiana/Mississippi. It’s closer to what you would find in the foothills of Appalachia. If you were to blindfold me and drop me out of a plane into the Clark Creek Natural Area, I might think that I were in Arkansas or Georgia, but in fact I would be three miles from the Mississippi River, 30 miles from Baton Rouge.

For a while, we stuck to the established trail. Curious signs only confused us and soon we found ourselves whacking through brush, not because we were lost, but because it was so much more interesting to make our own trail. We came upon another confusing trail marker. The sign made little to no sense, and we came to a decision. We were no longer going to follow the signs. Instead, we would descend down into the dry creek bed and follow it around the park. We veered down a steep grade, hanging onto tree trunks as gravity did most of the work for us, like Plinko chips on the Price is Right, only I’d like to think that we had more control over our tumbling fates. We bounced from tree to tree, sliding down the clay and mud to a drop-off of 30+ feet. Dane led the way as we found the best location to descend to the mostly dry creek bed below.

After taking a lot of photos, we started along the creek bed. I enjoyed the quiet splendor as the water-worn rocks and pebbles crunched under my feet. The few leaves left after winter rustled in the wind. After much more exploring and picture taking, we decided it was time to head back. I checked the GPS to confirm our direction, and we cut through the brush past another waterfall, right back onto the path. On the way out, we made a pit-stop at the 130 year-old general store in Pond. Dane struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. She was a little reserved at first, but once Dane got her talking, there was no stopping her.

Tunica Falls is certainly worth the 2 1/2 hour drive from New Orleans. We were back by evening’s twilight, and even though I was locked out of my own house (wrong key), I can honestly say that sitting there in the cold – waiting for my wife to get back from working in her studio – it was all worth it. A walk in the woods on New Year’s Day may become a tradition yet.

Sugar Bowl: Cajun-Country Cycling Trip

Fall is such a nice time for biking in South Louisiana. No, we don’t have the typical “fall foliage” here – more of a green to yellow transition as seen through the smoke of billowing cane field fires, but despite the lack of leaves bursting orange and red, it is still pleasing to enjoy the outdoors at a breezy 70°.

This trip was concocted and organized by my friend Jonathan Rhodes, a lawyer practicing in New Orleans. The plan was to complete a two day tour of Lafayette, St. Martin, and New Iberia parishes via bicycle. We would drive out to Lafayette, bike to St. Martinville, and then camp at Lake Fausse State Park. On the next day we would bike around Lake Fausse and then turn North through the towns of Charenton, Jeanerette, New Iberia, and Broussard ending back at the car in Lafayette. As is typical on trips of this nature, the notable moments are usually unscheduled, found between waypoints, random surprises waiting to be discovered. Where would this loop through “Cajun Country” take us? Only one way to find out…

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Packing Jonathan's car in New Orleans.

From the get-go I was running late. A large chunk of the prior evening was spent wrestling with a pair of borrowed panniers. Panniers are bags or baskets that fasten to the side of a bicycle, typically in pairs (see images below). They are preferable over rack bags because they hang low, allowing the cyclist to easily maintain a center of gravity. In preparation for the trip I got caught up in that all too familiar struggle: having the gear one needs vs. having a lightweight bag. After hours of trial and error, I wound up throwing random gear into the panniers and went to sleep. This late night haste led to me purchasing a gas station toothbrush and utensils at Walgreens.


Myself and Jonathan posing in front of our bikes in Lafayette, LA just before we shoved off.


In front of the Tommy Comeaux memorial. Cyclist, slide-guitarist for Cajun band BeauSoleil, and doctor of medicine, Comeaux was killed by a motorist who had a seizure at the wheel. This stretch of road in Lafayette is dedicated to his memory.

Fall is also a time for harvest, and in Louisiana that means one thing – sugar cane! No matter where we biked in our tri-parish trip, sugar cane was never very far away. We witnessed cane in all stages of harvest: cutting, loading, fields on fire, transporting, and even processing at the mill. The industry is unavoidable. Even with no fields in sight, we still felt the impact of sugar cane. Swerving around tractor debris became second nature, but nothing could have prepared us for the smell of the sugar cane mill in New Iberia. The American Sugar Cane League’s 2008 pamphlet titled The Louisiana Sugar Industry states:

Sugar cane is being produced on nearly 450,000 acres of land in 23 Louisiana Parishes. Production should exceed fourteen million tons of cane with an economic impact of $1.7 billion to the cane growers and raw sugar factories of the state. Louisiana produces about 20% of the sugar grown in the United States (beets and cane). Approximately 27,000 employees are involved in this production and processing of sugar in Louisiana alone.

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Sugar cane

 

I grew up right next to a sugar cane field through most of my adolescent years, and not once did I ever attempt to taste the raw stalk. As Jonathan and I biked past all this cane, the idea suddenly struck me. I seized my chance when we turned down a quite parish road. With almost no traffic from either direction, NOW was the time! The sequence of photos documents me eating cane, which I am very sad to report, tasted like a handful of grass to me. I announced my findings on Facebook and was instantly hit with a barrage of comments:

Sweet grass? I remember it being sweet (when I was little). Seems like it should be ripe around now, and it should be sweet. Did you get any juice from the inside?
– Niki Di

You have to let it sit in your coffee milk.
– Dane Faucheux

Try pulling strands from the center of the stalk. We used to just chew on that.
– Jason Hughes

Yeah I think you’re eating a leaf there, or a frond, or what have you. Try down where it’s a bit more rigid. Some kid from thibodaux gave me a piece once, and it was pretty damn good.
– Christopher Esposito

Used to cut and chew some all the time when we were kids… great sugary taste when it’s mature. OK I looked closer. You have to strip the leaves off and peel the bark off before you try to chew it! You lived right by a cane field. You should know how to chew sugar cane!
– Tommy Becnel

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Our first major destination was St. Martinville, about 16 miles southeast of Lafayette. St. Martinville is one of the oldest towns in Louisiana and is most notable for its early involvement with the Acadian exiles from Nova Scotia. Cycling through the historic downtown district, we were distracted by a group of very young girls. They seemed to be yelling for us, in some attempt to get us to visit a particular site. Whatever the case, Jonathan and I did turn around and made our way deeper into the historical district.

Our first stop was the Museum of the Acadian Memorial. The main feature of the museum is a large mural titled “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana” by Robert Dafford. The mural is part of an interactive audio tour incorporating stories of the Acadians. Other highlights of the museum include the “Wall of Names” (twelve bronze plaques listing approximately 3000 people identified as Acadian refugees), the Eternal Flame (symbolizing the “ability of a culture to rekindle itself despite great hardship”), and the Deportation Cross (A replica of the Grand-Pre Deportation Cross. The original Deportation Cross, near the Grand-Pre National Historic Site in Nova Scotia, marks the site of embarkation of over 2,000 Acadian farmers and tradesmen and their families in 1755.)

Retrieved from the Acadian Memorial website http://www.acadianmemorial.org

 

Museum of the Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, LA.

 

 

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Evangeline Oak

Just a short walk from the museum, we found a quite shaded spot for lunch – Evangeline Oak Park. The Evangeline Oak was made famous by the 1847 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie. The poem told the tale of an Acadian couple, Evangeline and Gabriel, separated by the forced exile from Canada. Because the poem is partly set in south Louisiana and sites local places such as the Atchafalaya, Bayou Teche, “St. Martin and St. Maur”, the people of St. Martinville dedicated this spot to the literary work. The images below depict a bust of Longfellow and the plaques surrounding it.

 

Longfellow monument in Evangeline Oak Park

 

20091107rc_19The photo at left is a vertical panoramic. I stitched together four photos stacked atop each other. The result is a wider, taller, high resolution image of the Evangeline Oak. The image will open in a separate window, and you may have to click on it to open it to full size.

 

After St. Martinville we followed country roads east through farmland. As we neared the Lake Fausse Pointe State Park, cattle and rolling pastures were replaced with egrets and low-lying swampland. We crossed Bayou Benoit and turned southeast toward the park entrance.

Pit stop at Bayou Benoit

 

Lake Fausse Pointe, purchased by the state of Louisiana in 1974 and dedicated in 1985, is a 6,000 acre protected wilderness area, primarily consisting of cypress swamp and a natural lake. The park is the former home of the Chitimacha Indians. During the mid-1700s the area was dominated by French and Acadian trappers. We pulled up to the check-in window at the welcome center and were immediately attacked by giant mosquitoes. It was dusk, and to make matters worse, the check-in process quickly spiraled into chaos. Jonathan, who had the foresight to take care of all the reservations in advance, was mystified as to how the reservation operator could have possibly thought that two men on bicycles would reserve a campsite that you have to canoe to! Racing to beat the setting sun would amount to nothing if we were left to argue accommodations for thirty minutes. The prospect of setting up camp in the swamp, in the dark, propelled Jonathan to do his lawyer thing. I’m not really clear as to how the whole thing ended, but there were refunds, exchanges, campsite swaps, and the promise of a letter of complaint before the smoke cleared.

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Paddlers on Old Bird Island Chute

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We did make it to camp just before sunset. The first thing we did was cover ourselves from head to toe in clothing for protection from mosquitoes. I’ve been fishing in the marsh, I’ve slept outside on a hammock in Grand Isle, and I’ve been covered head to toe in swamp mud in the Bonnet Carre Spillway, but never in my life have I been so besieged by mosquitoes! Of course, it’s no surprise when you think about all the standing water surrounding us. The entire state park is a veritable breeding ground for the pest, but still, the onslaught was impressive. We adorned rain gear, wrapped our heads, and doused the rest with DEET, a product that until then I could not tolerate on my skin. That night DEET became my armor, my friend.

Once shielded from the mosquitoes, we were free to set up the tents, gather wood, and start a fire. The flames and smoke added a second line of defense from those buzzing nuisances. Finally, Jonathan and I sat down and made a delicious meal of corn, peas, and tuna curry over rice. This meal, as most are after a full day of cycling, was devoured quickly along with second helpings. After our meal, we chatted by the fire until sleep became inescapable. We each crawled into our tents respectively and battled the mosquitoes that followed, until there were none.

 

20091107rc_38For me, day two of our Cajun Country cycling tour started early. I awoke, and as my vision cleared I spotted three large mosquitoes on the ceiling of my tent. I flicked one with my middle finger, and it exploded upon impact leaving a large blotch of blood on my tent. I didn’t have the energy to clean up, so the next time I take my tent out, I know that the stain will be there waiting for me. I did finally convince myself to get out of bed, get dressed, and take some photos now that the sun was out.

bigcampsitepan_mThis is a 360° panoramic photograph of our campsite area. I created it by stitching together eight normal photographs.

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Scenes from the Lake Fausse Point State Park trail system

 

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More scenes from the Lake Fausse Point State Park trail system

 

Our morning goal was to hit the road early. More daylight = more things we can see, so we woke up early, made some instant oatmeal, filled our water bottles, and hit the road.

 

Today’s plan was to continue cycling southeast to the end of Lake Fausse, bike around the southern tip, and then northwest back towards Lafayette. Unfortunately, we hit a MAJOR snag within the first five minutes. The beautiful paved, secluded road that we were on disintegrated into loose gravel. We hoped that around every turn, a new paved road would begin, but after every turn we were just crushed by the reality of nothing but gravel as far as the eye could see. Finally, I waved down two men in a large pick-up truck to ask them, “Do you know how far this road goes? When does the gravel stop?” The driver gave me a cockeyed grin and replied, “That road goes all the way to Morgan City!” What crushing news. If we turned around then we would have to return the way we came, but if we could only get past this gravel, then our return trip would be filled with new places and experiences. Jonathan and I weighed the pros and cons, and in the end, we both thought it was important to keep going as planned. And so began a very slow 15 miles of gravel road.

 

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Burning cane is part of the harvesting process.

After two hours of gravel road, ANY road seem like smooth sailing. Even a highway filled with cane industry debris seemed delightful after that rocky nightmare. We were now heading back northeast towards Lafayette. This area along Old Spanish Trail through Jeanerette and New Iberia is one of the most dense cane areas in the state and is often referred to as the “Sugar Bowl”. We saw more of the sugar industry in the next 20 miles than at any other time on the trip.

Riding along the shoulder of a busy highway is one thing, but riding alongside sugar cane trucks is another. It was especially interesting to stop and check out the Sorrel Sugar Mill between Charenton and Jeanerette. A historical marker in front of the Sorrel Sugar Mill reads:

Site of one of the early ranches along the Old Cattle Route from Mexico to Vacherie on the Mississippi. Joseph Sorrel, in cattle business from 1750s had land claims of over 3000 acres.

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Sorrel sugar mill

 

Up the road some, in Jeanerette, we came across Justin’s Observatory, an amateur Cajun’s version of Palomar. Owned and operated by hobbyist Justin Lerive, this is probably the last thing one might expect to see on the side of main street in Jeanerette, and we might have missed it if not for the tiny sign out front. I fully intend to go back to Justin’s, one clear night, and take advantage of his astronomical structure.

 

In 1799 Spanish settlers traveled up Bayou Teche to land at an area called Spanish Lake. The Spaniards called this area “Nueva Iberia” after the Iberian Peninsula, the large European land mass comprised of Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Andorra, and a small portion of France. In later years, when it came time to incorporate the town, there was some squabbling over the name. State legislature officially named the town New Iberia in 1847.

New Iberia’s Main Street is lined with beautiful antebellum homes, half-hidden by even more elegant oaks. We stopped to marvel at the oak in front of the Frederick L. Gates home. A historical marker in front of the house reads:

Former home of Frederick Larned Gates (1827-1897), outstanding citizen, businessman, lawyer and Civil War Veteran. He served as district judge in the 1870s and 1880s. As an early industrialist, Gates developed a cotton seed oil business which was one of the area’s major enterprises.

 

In my opinion, New Iberia was by far the most interesting town we passed through on this trip. I could easily see myself going back there in the future to properly tour some of the antebellum homes, sample eateries, and explore the area along Bayou Teche. With that said, we were both jonesing for coffee, yet couldn’t find a single cafe open on Sunday in New Iberia! To make matters worse, the entire town smelled like a rotten baby diaper. At first, we assumed that one of us had stepped in something foul at the Frederick L. Gates house. In the end, we realized that the ubiquitous stench must be the byproduct of a local mill, probably sugar cane. The combination of no coffee shops to patronize and singeing nose hairs made New Iberia overly inhospitable. We continued up the road, on our final push towards Lafayette.

The last leg of our trip was fast and furious, 20 miles from New Iberia to Lafayette. In order to get to our cars before nightfall, we had to make up some time. We biked the distance in two 10-mile legs with a break in between. As we passed through the town of Broussard (population approx 7,000) I noticed a man standing outside of a sports bar, smoking a cigarette. Realizing that the New Orleans Saints were already well into the first quarter against division rival Carolina Panthers, I yelled at him, “How are the Saints doing?” He yelled back, “Seventeen to three… We’re losing!” I couldn’t believe it, the Saints were going to lose a game. Later, in the car ride back to New Orleans, Jonathan and I listened to Saints commentators call a great comeback as the Saints rallied to defeat the Panthers 30 – 20! It was a great end to a great trip and a fitting way to transition back to city life.

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Jonathan Rhodes and Taylor Lasseigne. Two days and 100 miles in the can.

Cycling New Orleans, LA to Venice, LA and Back Again

Some trips are planned out out months or even years in advance. Phone calls, maps, gear needs, reservations, research, and countless hours traveling a virtual path in Google Earth typically come before these arduously strategical undertakings. This was not one of those trips.

Originally, Angela and I planned to go camping with friends for spring break, but plans changed and I was unexpectedly faced with a few free days on my own. I seized the opportunity and quickly threw together a solo cycling adventure. The basic plan was to bike from New Orleans, LA to Venice, LA – the end of the road, rest my legs somewhere overnight, and then bike back up to New Orleans the next day. My path consisted of various river roads and highways that hugged the Mississippi River all the way down. The minimal amount of planning involved for this journey generated a few black and white maps and a vague lead on a place to sleep. Ready or not, I loaded down my bike and backpack with as much as I felt comfortable carrying, and the trek was underway.

The distance from New Orleans to Venice is about 80 or 90 miles depending on which roads one takes. The night before the trip, I had trouble sleeping. My mind raced with questions about the next two days, traveling to a new place for the first time. What would I find out there on the road? What kind of people would I meet along the way? Where would I sleep? Will I run into any trouble? This being the longest ride I’ve ever attempted, would I have the strength to bike back on day two? I didn’t have an extensive plan of action, but I knew that with questions like these, I was probably on the right course.

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Google Earth map depicting Southeast Louisiana

Day one begins in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans, just east of the historic French Quarter. I started early, 7:00 AM, crossed the Industrial Canal bridge, pedaled through the Lower 9th Ward, through Arabie, and before I knew it I was in the country. With the rising sun’s earliest golden rays just touching the treetops, I pull into the Chalmette Battlefield.

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The road leading into the Chalmette Battlefield

It was on this site, on January 8, 1815, that General Andrew Jackson led his troops to the greatest American land victory in the War of 1812. This was the last battle of the last war between England and the US, and Jackson’s men totally dominated the british forces. About 5,000 militia and volunteers, including the Baratarians of Jean Lafitte, defended New Orleans against about 5,400 men led by Major General Sir Edward M. Pekenham, commander of the British Army at Chalmette. By the end of what is now called the Battle of New Orleans, British casualties exceeded 2,000 while Americans reported only 13. Andrew Jackson enjoyed fame and the status of a hero after this victory and served as president of the United States from 1829-1837.

Chalmette Battlefield. Pictured below you can still see the mud rampart build by Jackson’s militia now fortified by a wooden wall, recreations of the cannon’s used in battle, and the Malus-Beauregard house on the Mississippi River levee. The blue cannons represent 6-pounders and the cannon at far right was the largest American cannon on the field, a 32-pounder. The Malus-Beauregard house was erected around 1833, 18 years after the Battle of New Orleans, and was named after its last owner, Judge Rene Beauregard.

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Chalmette Monument

A representative of the National Park stuck his head out of the visitor’s center trailer, and we exchanged morning greetings. I circled around the towering Chalmette Monument and read the placard before it.

Chalmette Monument

This monument honoring the American victory at Chalmette was proposed by Andrew Jackson in 1840. Work began on a 200 foot obelisk in 1856, but soon halted due to a lack of money. Construction began again in 1894 when the Louisiana Legislature gave control of the monument to the United States Daughters of 1776 and 1812.

A reduced height was necessary for stability, and the 100 foot, 2-1/2 inch monument was completed by the Daughters in 1908 with financial help from the Federal Government.

The Chalmette National Cemetery, on these same grounds, was established in May of 1864. Residents of the cemetery include veteran soldiers from the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and 4 Americans who fought in the War of 1812, only one of which fought on the grounds in Chalmette. The cemetery was seriously impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Headstones struck by falling trees, toppled and crumbled into manageable chunks, and preservationists are currently working to piece together this national treasure. Chris Kirkham wrote an article for the New Orleans Times Picayune on February 16th, 2009 describing the recovery efforts. “Storm surges from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had toppled sections of a historic red-brick wall lining the site, 140-year-old gravestones lay in pieces and soldiers’ bones had surfaced from below.” Pishny Restoration Services are tying together the headstones with a steel rod and then patching them, all done with the end goal of historical accuracy in mind. The intention is to make the cemetery look exactly as it did before the storms. This section of the park was closed to pedestrians, so I’ll have to revisit the site when the project is completed.

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Two cows sitting in a field in Meraux, LA. Notice the cow in the foreground has a rather large gash in its belly.

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Grove/alley of oaks in Meraux, LA along Hwy 46.

Fifteen miles downstream from New Orleans, an amazing thing is happening, and it’s called the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion Project. In the official project “fact sheet”, the Army Corps of Engineers states:

The project diverts fresh water and its accompanying nutrients and sediments from the Mississippi River to coastal bays and marshes in Breton Sound for fish and wildlife enhancement. Benefits include restoration of former ecological conditions by controlling salinity and supplementing nutrients and sediments. The bays are important to oyster production and as breeding areas for shrimp and food fishes, while the marsh areas produce food for fur-bearing animals, alligators, and migratory waterfowl. A total of 16,000 acres of marshland will be preserved and 77,000 acres of marshes and bays will be benefited by the project. The diversion takes place under regulated conditions developed from monitoring the impact on the environment and the fish and wildlife. Deterioration of the marshes below New Orleans has long been recognized. This deterioration stems from factors such as subsidence, erosion, and saltwater intrusion. The introduction of fresh water and alluviums from the Mississippi River, via the control structure, will serve to reduce this degenerating trend in the local area. The project will benefit existing commercial fisheries by enhancing marsh conditions, thereby improving the fish and wildlife resources of the area. The total average annual benefits include $8,706,000 for fish and wildlife and $449,000 for recreation, totaling $9,155,000.

On the day of my big bike ride, only one duck was splashing around in the waters of Caernarvon. The pelican photos below were taken a month prior at the same point, where the Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion crosses underneath Hwy 39 and works its way towards Breton Sound.

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The Caernarvon Freshwater Diversion

American White Pelicans feeding in the Caernarvon Diversion. Note the small orange horn on some of the pelicans’ bills. This protrusion forms during mating season and falls off some time after.

 

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A panoramic view of the Mississippi River somewhere between English Turn and Phoenix, LA.

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Vultures on the levee south of English Turn

I discovered that chasing nutria rats with a camera can make for an amusing diversion. The nutria pictured below was busy building some kind of embankment near a canal when I startled it. I also stumbled upon a family of nutria ranging in size from tiny (about the size of a tennis ball) to remarkably giant (think small bear). The largest nutria, incredibly nimble for its girth, resembled olympic swimmer Michael Phelps as it leapt from the path and dove into the canal, quicker than I could fire off a shot with my Nikon.

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Shrine near the St. Thomas Church Cemetery

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One of many devastated properties in Plaquemines Parish

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River traffic at the Pointe a la Hache ferry

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The Pointe a la Hache ferry paused to fill up the water tanks before heading back to the Westbank.

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DSC_0171Plaquemines Flag While one deckhand topped off the boat’s fresh water supply, I spoke to the other deckhand about the large colorful flag on the bow. He explained that this was the official flag of Plaquemines Parish and that each color represented one of the local high schools. I dug a little deeper and found a conflicting view at the website Flags of the World:

The official parish flag was raised for the first time on June 14, 1978 over the Judge L. H. Perez Memorial Park. The banner had been designed by E. Montgomery, a community resident, who had entered a contest held parish wide that was held by local officials. Each color in the flag was designated to represent a virtue of the parish. A green triangle represents the color of growth in the delta. A white border designating purity separates the green of the delta from the three broad bars of red, golden yellow and blue – symbolic of courage, honor and piety respectively.

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yard in Plaquemines just north of Port Sulphur

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welcome sign, heading south into Port Sulphur

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tree on levee in Port Sulphur

 

In Homepleace, LA I came across a shrine to Our Lady of Fatima. Here is some background on that story:

In 1917, through a miracle accepted by the Catholic Church, it is believed that the Virgin Mary appeared to three children (Lucia Santos and siblings Jacinta and Francisco Marto) in Fatima, Portugal. She first appeared to the children on May 13, 1917, and the visits continued regularly for the next five months, always on the 13th day. The “Lady” urged the children to live holy lives and shared secrets with them which would later be called the “Three Secrets of Fatima”. The first secret was a terrifying vision of Hell on Earth, the second secret included instructions on how to save sinners from that Hell, and the third secret revealed the deaths of a pope and other associates of the Catholic Church. Drawn to the holy location, now called Cova da Iria, 100,000 believers, skeptics, and bystanders witnessed the last appearance on October 13th of the same year. On that day the “Lady” performed what is now known as the “Miracle of the Sun”.

fatimachildrenAccording to many witness statements, after a downfall of rain, the dark clouds broke and the sun appeared as an opaque, spinning disk in the sky. It was said to be significantly less bright than normal, and cast multicolored lights across the landscape, the shadows on the landscape, the people, and the surrounding clouds. The sun was then reported to have careened towards the earth in a zigzag pattern, frightening some of those present who thought it meant the end of the world. Some witnesses reported that their previously wet clothes became “suddenly and completely dry.” – De Marchi, John (1952b). The Immaculate Heart. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. This shrine appears across the street from the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Homeplace, LA. In researching the shrine I found images, less than a year old, that show the shrine unpainted with the surrounding shrubbery lifeless. Today the shrine is a vibrant and beautifully colored memorial to one of the Catholic Church’s many amazing mysteries.

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I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what this shrine was when I biked up to it. I had no idea that the construction and layout of the characters was intentional, but now after some investigation I see that the shrine clearly depicts the three children of Fatima praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This raises some questions. Why is this shrine here in Homeplace, LA? It seems to me that the miracles witnessed in 1917 are very far removed from Plaquemines Parish, so why place it here on this tiny half-mile-wide sliver of land bordered by the Mississippi River to the northeast and marsh to the southwest? I feel like the metaphysical weight of the Fatima phenomenon represented in this shrine is too heavy for these grounds and will one day be swallowed up like an old shotgun house built atop soft soil. Maybe I’m making too much of this idol. Perhaps it will become a pilgrimage destination. It was for me, and I didn’t even know it!

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Passing through Port Sulphur and then Homeplace, I was stopped several times by Plaquemines Parish cops. Three young boys had just robbed a gas station down the river, and the police were looking for them. I saw cops stopping vehicles at a road block, going door to door to ask if folks had observed any suspicious behavior, and of course stopping the strange fellow on the bicycle to ask where he had been, where he was coming from, and then following with questions aimed at figuring out what was wrong with him for riding such a long distance on a bike.

In Homeplace, while attempting to make a panoramic photograph by the river (see image below), a mysterious Crown Victoria crept along the levee, down the river side, and pulled up to my bike. The jet-black windows lowered to reveal a wrinkled man with a cigarette clinging to his bottom lip. I got the feeling that he decided to talk to me before thinking through his words. “I AM A POLICE,” he blurted, which is the equivalent of me walking into the school where I work and declaring, “I AM A TEACH!” The aged officer looked me up and down and after a bit of pondering gave me the head nod of approval. “You seen anything suspicious around here?” I wanted to say that I’d seen a live cow in Meraux with its guts pouring out of a rip in its side, but I simply said, “No, I’ve been riding since before Port Sulphur. I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary.” The conversation turned to my trip, as it did with all the cops that stopped me, and whether or not I was alright in the head. The old man couldn’t believe that I had pedaled from New Orleans to Homeplace on a bike. I attempted to explain that it was a hybrid/road bike and that I could work up a pretty good head of steam, but before I could finish my side of the story he cut me off, “Well, call the sheriff is you see anything. I’m gunna keep on lookin’.”

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This is a 360° panoramic of the Mississippi River in Homeplace, LA (mile 61). Notice the cop car on the levee.

Below is another panoramic photograph. It was taken on a bridge that crosses the Doullut Canal in Empire, LA (mile 69). There’s a small but busy marina below, and a view of Adams Bay to the southwest.

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Former site of Barrios Drugs in Buras, LA.

Here stands a new water tower in Buras. One of the town’s towers fell during Hurricane Katrina. This may be its replacement.

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Biking through Buras, I did a double take, squeezed my brakes, and made a u-turn when I saw the “Faith Temple Ministries” church (mile 77). On first glance, you might think that this oddly shaped building is like a giant tent, but the outer material is quite solid. I parked my bike between the church and what appeared to be mobile homes set up as temporary housing for the missionaries. Several young men and women were cooking out on the makeshift boardwalk between the mobile homes, and one of the women came out to greet me. She very kindly invited me to take photographs, tour the inside of the church, and she told me a little about the building. She said that the rare construction of the Faith Temple Ministries church was called “spring structure”, and that there were only a handful in the entire country.

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At about 3:30 PM I pulled into Fort Jackson (mile 79). Fort Jackson is a decommissioned fortification, requested by and named for Andrew Jackson after the War of 1812. It was the site of the Battle of Forts Jackson and St. Philip from April 18-28, 1862, but I’ll talk more about that later when I return to Fort Jackson after dark.

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Scenes from Fort Jackson:

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Venice Palms Inshore and Offshore Fishing Charter. The image cracks me up - mermaid on a fish. Come on.

Riding down Tidewater Road, the southernmost public road in Plaquemines, I stopped to talk to these fishermen. The two men were members of a construction crew working in Buras that had just finished work for the day. The man on the left reported that he spotted me biking much earlier in the day, and joked with his friend, “40 more miles to go and we’ll see him in Venice!” Never actually expecting to see me again, they were quite surprised when I pulled up on my bike. As we got to talking the fellow on the right pulled in a catfish.

The next day, on my ride back home, I ran into the men again, this time in Buras. It was early and they were setting up equipment for the day. As I rolled down the quite back-road in Buras, the man on the right yelled out, “On your way back to New Orleans?” I concurred. “Alright, well be careful out there!”

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Brackish Catfish

Deeper down Tidewater Road, I was flagged by two Latino men. One of them pointed down at his catch and said in very broken English, “Hey man, you know fish?” I looked down at my feet where I hadn’t even realized that I was nearly standing on a garfish. I said, “That’s a garfish.” He looked at his friend and back at me, “Good to eat?” I’ve never had gar, but I know that people eat it. Hell, people eat everything down here. I said, “I think so. Try it out!” They thanked me and I continued down the road.

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Garfish

Finally after 93 miles and ten hours of pedaling, I came to the very end of the road. To my surprise, there was a sign marking the terminus, “WELCOME – YOU HAVE REACHED THE SOUTHERNMOST POINT IN LOUISIANA – GATEWAY TO THE GULF.” Aside from the fact that I was not truly at the most southern point in Louisiana, it was oddly satisfying to see this sign, like a reward for all my hard work.

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Self portrait - success.

 

Cypress Trees – Venice

 

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Trawl boats - Venice

Lift barge (left);  Spider lily (right)

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Superfluous fire hydrant?

There are surprisingly few places to eat down at the end of Louisiana, and with my hunger level verging on “hangry”, that’s hungry plus angry, it was imperative that I locate food. It took quite a bit of searching and asking around, but after overcoming some of the worst directions I’ve ever received in a town with one road, I finally found myself at the Riverside Restaurant. While I spent a little more than I typically would on a plate of food, $23 with tip, I did get a huge helping of the best catfish I’ve ever had. The batter was light, flaky, and seasoned just right. The fish was piping hot, fresh, and perfect. The waitstaff, probably accustomed to dealing with salty sea dogs, was young and a bit curt for my taste – menu, plate, bill, no frills, no small talk, just excellent catfish.

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The catfish plate at Riverside Restaurant

After devouring the fish I started the slightly less thrilling leg of the trip, back up the river towards New Orleans.

Earlier in the day I stopped in at three different RV parks between Empire and Venice, and at each I was greeted with the same reception, “We’re not set up for tent camping. You should check out Fort Jackson up the road.” In all three situations I attempted to explain that I didn’t need facilities or hook-ups, just a patch of grass, but all three RV park representatives turned a cold shoulder and sent me on my way. It should be noted that all three places had lots and lots of grass. Nonetheless, I pressed on, 10 miles back up the river to Fort Jackson. By the time I got there it was dark, very dark.

A little history on Fort Jackson: As I said before, Fort Jackson is a decommissioned fortification, requested by and named for Andrew Jackson after the War of 1812. The purpose of the stronghold was to defend New Orleans from enemy encroachment via the Mississippi River. From April 18-28, 1862 Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, almost directly across the river, were host to a major Civil War battle. During this crushing maneuver the Federal forces successfully navigated up the river and through the two forts. In an exchange of mortar, the Federal forces lost only one ship while the Confederates’ entire fleet was destroyed. Federal forces subsequently took the city of New Orleans. Confederate soldiers, disheartened by the shocking blow, mutinied and Fort Jackson was sacked. No one knows the exact number of casualties from this battle, but when the smoke cleared it is believed that approximately 37 Federal soldiers and over 700 Confederate soldiers met their fate at Forts Jackson and St. Philip. Some died manning stations on land. Others met a watery fate, swallowed by the Mississippi.

I rolled onto the pitch black grounds, exhausted from 111 miles of pedaling. All I wanted to do was set up my tent and sleep, but it wasn’t that simple. I had to find the “campsite”. Jackson is a star-shaped fort, a design whose origins date back to mid-15th century Italy. In addition, there is an outer boundary defined by an ancient (by American standards) brick wall. Thanks to Federal mortar shells, the surge of Hurricane Katrina, and what appears to be general abandonment by the state of Louisiana, this wall is quite eroded, hence easily surmountable. My camping spot was on the other side of that outer wall. Just as it was described to me by the cold-shouldered RV site operators, Fort Jackson had at one time fitted the area between the outer and inner wall with brick-lined grills, pick-nick tables, and enough green space to set up a tent. What they didn’t tell me was that adjacent to that “camping” area, not fifty feet away, was a moat. Outer wall, grassy area, MOAT, and then inner wall. I couldn’t believe it, I had to camp alongside a moat. I’m just going to come out and say it – this place made for a creepy campsite. As I lay my head down to rest for the night, there were a myriad reasons to be uneasy. Certainly the most troubling thought rattling in my brain was that nearly 900 men died on this spot. That alone is enough to keep a person up at night, but when you add a steady rustling in the trees above, a mysterious moat with God knows what swimming about, and the fact that no one else was camping in the area, one starts to question his choice of campsite. The icing on the cake was the random car driving through the park every hour or so. Luckily I was hidden behind the outer wall, so no one could detect my presence unless they climbed up and over for themselves. But still, who is driving through Fort Jackson at 2:00 AM? My mind raced. Sleep did not come quickly. Finally, after a few hours of staring at the moat through the mesh of my tent, I began to slip into dreamland. I got a few good hours of rest, but then at about 4:00 AM the cold set in. The lows reached 59° that night, and I simply wasn’t well prepared. Choosing to pack light meant no sleeping bag, just a small sleeping pad, Gore jacket, and pants. I did find comfort in an unlikely piece of gear, my dry-sack. Upon waking up at 4:00 AM, I realized that my head and feet were freezing, so I unzipped my Gore jacket’s hood and put my feet into my dry-sack, a foldable waterproof pouch. Both my head and feet warmed up quickly, and I instantly began to retain more body heat! I got my best sleep between 4:00 and 6:00 AM.

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"The Splendid Naval Triumph on the Mississippi, April 24th, 1862"

Description found on original print:

Destruction of the Rebel gunboats, rams and iron clad batteries by the Union Fleet under Flag Officer Farragut. The attack was commenced on the 18th of April and continued until the 25th resulting in the capture of Forts Jackson, St. Philip, Livingston, Pike and the city of New Orleans, as well as the destruction of all the enemy gunboats, rams, floating batteries (iron clad), fire rafts, booms and chains. The enemy with their own hands destroying cotton and shipping valued at from eight to ten millions of dollars. “The sight of this night attack was awfully grand, the river was lit up with blazing rafts filled with pine knots and the ships seemed to be fighting literally amidst flames and smoke.” – This image is Public Domain and appears courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. via Wikipedia Commons. Click to enlarge.

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Panoramic taken in the morning. In this image you can see the outer walls, camping area, tables, grills, moat, and inner wall of the fort.

 

Images of the outer wall

 

I woke up to a beautiful sunrise in the morning. Of course, seeing the grounds in the light of day made me feel a little ridiculous about the night before. What is it about darkness that complicates things? Shadows turn a perfectly innocent scene of brick, grass, trees, and water into a sinister, haunted, monster-dwelling place, where falling asleep would certainly result in death. I laughed at myself as I tore down camp. Leaving the grounds, I ran into three men that worked at the fort. I wanted to know who was running the place – local government, state, National Park Service. It wasn’t clear at all, so I approached the men, “Morning guys, you all work here on the inside of the fort?” I saw that the drawbridge was lowered, and a crew seemed to be landscaping. “We work the whole thing, you know, take care of the place.” I asked them my question, “Let me ask ya’ll question, who’s got jurisdiction over this place because I couldn’t tell by looking?” The older man of the bunch answered, “Parish government, Plaquemines.” I continued, “Ok, so the parish is in charge. It’s not a state park or a national monument or anything? Don’t you think it deserves that kind of recognition?” I almost stepped on some toes with that blurt. The older man replied, “Yea, we don’t want the state to get a hold of it. If they get it, then we’re all out of jobs. They’ll come in here and put in their own people.” Another of the workers cut in, “I’ve been here for thirteen years.” I told them about my night, “I was camping out under the trees last night by a pick-nick table. Place gets kind of spooky at night. Old ruins, trees, moat…” The older man spoke up, “It’s not that bad, all you really have to worry about is those crazy teenagers. They’ll tear this place apart. Can’t understand why they want to tear down all that they’ve got.” A lightbul went off in my head. Maybe that’s who was driving around at 3:00 AM. The conversation gravitated towards my bike trip and, and I got that typical reaction, “Boy, you crazy!?” They shook their head, wished me luck, and I was on my way.

Biking through Port Sulphur via sleepy back roads, I passed three teenagers on foot. As I passed I overheard one saying, “Wanna hit him with some buck shot?” Add that unnerving encounter to the fact that my rear tire had developed a slow leak, and you can see why I was itching for a pit stop.

I stopped at 10:15 for a ham and egg sandwich with sausage on the side and some much needed coffee. The folks dining in were all local and conversing at the top of their lungs. A trucker and his young son talked about each rig that stopped to gas up. The same man turned to a nearby table to share a story about a trucker who lost his entire load at a red light because he didn’t stop to check his load often enough. Three latino men sat across from me and, while waiting for their order, watched what sounded like 80’s music videos with spanish commentary on an iPhone. Another father/son combo discussed Dr Pepper at length. At one point, an old man and woman stumbled out of an electronic gaming stall. The waitress knew them by name and yelled out, “See you at lunch!” As I left, two older gentlemen were debating whether or not the rapper C-Murder was still in prison.

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Ham, egg, sausage, and coffee.

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Woodland Plantation, located on the north end of Port Sulphur. You may recognize this plantation, as it is the image on the label of Southern Comfort.

 

Images from Woodland Plantation

 

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I've been told that this is the home of William Harold "Billy" Nungesser, Plaquemines Parish president.

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Ben Becnel's fruit stand near Alliance. The nice folks here invited me to rest and eat, so I bought some dried cantaloup and sat for a spell.

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This mailbox in Belle Chase caught my eye.

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Naval Air Station in Belle Chase, LA.

Just north of the Naval Air Station, I stumbled upon the Blue Angel Lounge. I remember reading about the place: wall to wall Blue Angel memorabilia and filled with veteran aviators. None of this was true on the day I popped in. What the Blue Angel Lounge did have were drinking games. For one of the games, five dice are rolled. If enough of the numbers match, you drink for free! There is another “game” of sorts, where a patron can decorate a drink cup when purchasing someone else a drink. The bartender had a big stack of old decorated cups, and I asked if there were any Blue Angel themed cups. She handed me a a cup that said, “BLUE ANGELA VARSITY SWIM TEAM, BELLE CHASSE LA”. The text was accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek illustration of sperm swimming in formation. The reverse simply stated, “GO HARD OR GO HOME.” At the L-shaped bar, I faced everyone else in room including three other thirsty patrons and the bartender. It was April 15th, so by no surprise the conversation hovered around taxes. Two of the men were shrimpers and one worked on the train. The shrimpers discussed how they usually owe about $700 in taxes every year. One year a shrimper was slammed by $8,000 in additional taxes! Luckily his accountant found extra money here and there and worked the amount down to a more manageable $3,000.

Images from the Blue Angel Lounge

 

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Belle Chasse ferry

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River traffic

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Majestic oak catching the day's last hint of light.

Things seen on this trip: Little animals scurrying back into woods, nutria in ditches, vultures, roadkill, people fishing, birds fishing, RV parks down south, trailers, stoops with empty slabs, water, lush green, blue skies, cows, industry, levees, boats, trucks pulling boats, chickens in yards, roosters crowing, streets named for the one thing down them, curious Plaquemines Parish deputies, a squirrel as big as a nutria, and a nutria the size of a small bear.

Total trip stats: 191.66 miles / averaged 11.3 mph

#003: Mardi Gras Indians

Play

Mardi Gras Indians Podcast #3 Mardi Gras Indians / New Orleans, LA
February 24th, 2009

On this particular Mardi Gras morning, a couple of friends and I stumbled upon a small group of Mardi Gras Indians congregated at The Porch 7th Ward Cultural Center. From there, we ditched our bikes and joined the parade. Special thanks to Elijah Chong for the beautiful photography that accompanies this podcast. Click here for the enhanced version.

#002: Austin and Guadalupe NP

Play

061008__004 Podcast #2 Austin and Guadalupe NP
January 9th, 2009

Winding our way through the Southwest, bound for Yellowstone, Angela Driscoll and I (Taylor Lasseigne) travel through Austin and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. In this podcast we talk about parks, bats, pedestrians, resteraunts, breakfast tacos, Austin’s capitol building, and a little hiking in the mountains of west Texas. Click here for the enhanced version.

Fick Fossil Museum – Oakley, KS

by Taylor Lasseigne and Angela Driscoll / June 23, 2008 /

The Ford Focus wagon took a beating on the dirt roads of Utah and the mountain climbs in Wyoming. As we reached Jackson Hole, strange things started to happen under the hood – clanking, smoke, etc. Being that is was a Sunday in a town with more outfitters than mechanics, we thought it wise to start the trek home.

I-70 crosses some 420+ monotonous flat miles of Kansas, and to break that monotony, we pulled off the road at Oakly, KS to tour the Fick Fossil Museum. We were so happy get out of the car that any roadside attraction would have been fulfilling, but the Fick Fossil Museum was actually really entertaining. Discoveroakley.com does a great job of explaining the existance of this collection:

People don’t generally associate Kansas with the ocean but Kansas was a very different place 80 million years ago than it is today! Around 70 to 90 million years ago, an inland sea stretched from the Artic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico and Kansas was under water. By 1964, however, this vast ocean was long gone. It was then that Oakley-area residents Ernest and Vi Fick started to seriously collect the fossils left by the ancient sea creatures that inhabited this prehistoric sea. In 1971, they had collected thousands of shark teeth and complete fossils. Vi Fick incorporated many of those fossil findings into a very unique collection of artwork. Soon, their collection had outgrown their home.

The Fick Fossil and History Museum, which was established to showcase the Ficks family’s findings and artwork, allows you to walk through the history of Logan County. Visitors start in the Prehistoric era, amid sharks teeth and fossils and end walking the through replicas of the early boardwalks of Oakley during the Dust storms of the 1930’s.

Most of the fossils in the museum were found within the vicinity of the Fick’s homestead near Oakley. Vi combined fossils and shells with oil painting to create one-of-a-kind artwork. These folk-art paintings are prominently featured in the museum. The museum houses replicas of Oakley’s first Depot, a sod house, Prather’s Creamery, and Oakley’s General Store. The museum also houses a large, impressive collection of rocks and minerals from the Oakley area and around the world including the remains of ancient tombs! Among its more than 11,000 sharks teeth and many fossils there is the world’s oldest known mosasaur fossil, a 15 foot Xiphactinus Audax prepared by well-known fossil-hunter George Sternberg, and other rare fossils.

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Fick Fossil Museum / Public Library

 

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Inside the Fick Museum

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This is a rare intact specemin of an Xiphactinus Audax prepared by well-known fossil-hunter George Sternberg. National Geographic says this about the prehistoric, aquatic, carnivore:

Xiphactinus was one of the largest bony fish of the Late Cretaceous and is considered one of the fiercest creatures in the sea. A powerful tail and winglike pectoral fins shot the 17-foot-long (5-meter-long) monster through the surface waters of the ocean. Unlucky fish and unsuspecting seabirds were snared inside Xiphactinus’s upturned jaw, which was lined with giant, fanglike teeth, giving it an expression akin to that of a bulldog.

A 13-foot-long (4-meter-long) Xiphactinus could open its jaw wide enough to swallow six-foot-long (two-meter-long) fish whole, but it itself was occasionally prey to the shark Cretoxyrhina. Xiphactinus trolled an ancient ocean called the Western Interior Seaway, which covered much of central North America during the Cretaceous. Though long extinct, if alive today the bony fish would look like a giant, fanged tarpon.

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This a very rare and well-rpeserved front paddle of a long-necked Plesiosaur, found in the Kansas chalk beds.

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Label reads: "The Beginning of the Cretaceous" is the name of this picture. This is what Vi Fick imagined it might have been like when God created the Cretaceous Seas.

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American flag made of shark teeth

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Vi and Ernest Fick

Teton National Park, WY

June 20-21 were spent in the grandeur of Grand Teton National Park. In short, the attraction to this park lies in the contrast between abrupt rising granite and broad glacier-carved lakes. Even after four days of Yellowstone, the landscape of Teton still caught me off guard. Our first stop in the park was at the Colter Bay Visitor Center for a proper lay of the land. There, we toured the Indian Arts Museum which, “Displays some of the David T. Vernon Collection, an impressive variety of American Indian artifacts donated by the Rockefeller family”.

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Grizzly bear claw neclace

 

A sign outisde the park explains the origin of the name Teton:

The giant peaks were a famous early western landmark known to fur hunters and mountain men. Perhaps as early as 1819, the French-speaking trappers were calling them the Trois Tetons – the three breasts. More prosaic English-speaking mountain men named then the Pilot Knobs, but the romantic French name stuck.

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Baby moose on the roadside. Its mother was forraging in the bushes.

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Jackson Lake Dam and Reservoir

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Jackson Lake vista from a roadside picknick pull-off

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Teton panoramic

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We spent the majority of the day at Jenny Lake. From the southeastern side of the lake, we boarded a ferry and crossed to the base of the Tetons. There, we hiked the Hidden Falls trail.

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Marmot

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The Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa) - also known as the Fairy Slipper or Venus's Slipper

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Snake River

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Colter Bay boats

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Yellowstone National Park – Day 4

Day four in Yellowstone consisted of touring the Midway Geyser Basin, hiking to Fairy Falls, exploring the Old Faithful area, getting caught in a Bison traffic jam, and spotting another Grizzly Bear.

To start the day, we traveled to Midway Geyser Basin to view, amongst other sites, Grand Prismatic Spring (Yellowstone’s largest thermal feature). The springs and pools at Midway are some of the most colorful in the park. At times blue and red steam, rising from the pools, reflects the colors of the waters. Combine its vivid colors with its massive breadth, and Grand Prismatic Spring is probably the most beautiful of all the springs we’d seen at the park.

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Grand Prismatic Spring

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The low vantage of Grand Prismatic from the boardwalk left us wanting for a better perspective. Later on in the day, hiking to Fairy Falls, we branched off of the path, climbed up a steep hill, and were rewarded with a fantastic view of Grand Prismatic Spring.

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The trail up to Fairy Falls, through part of the forest that was scorched in the great fire of 1988.

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Fairy Falls

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Springs on the Fairy Falls trail

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More evidence of the 1988 fires

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Grand Prismatic Spring from the Fairy Falls Trail - a much better angle.

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Fly-fisherman in the Firehole River

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Next on the agenda was the Old Faithful area, where we caught the 5:41PM eruption of Old Faithful. The famous geyser spewed for about 30 seconds and then returned to its resting state – steam exhaust. After the main attraction, we toured the famous Old Faithful Lodge and explored the other thermal features of the area.

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Old Faithful Lodge

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On the way back to camp that evening, we ran into some significant wildlife. First, we caught sight of either a wolf or coyote darting in and out of the forest. Then, we happened upon a long line of cars stopped at a heard of bison slowly crossing the road. The multitude of bison and their respective calfs held traffic there for about half an hour. I witnessed one driver attempt to squeeze his vehicle between two bison, only to have the larger bison take a head-swing at the side of his car. That was enough to keep me between the painted lines.

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Yellowstone Wolf?

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Later, down the road and only about half a mile from camp, we spotted a Grizzly Bear ambling its way toward the highway. The great thing about this sighting was that Angela and I were the first people to spot the animal. Typically, you only see something like a Grizzly or a Moose after several tourists have pulled off the highway. The bear seemed to be heading right for us, so after a few photos, I thought it wise to get the heck out of there. The proximity of this sighting to our camp was uncomfortably close.

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At camp we boiled water, made a meal of dry camp food, and enjoyed a few adult beverages. Over our entire stay in Yellowstone, we took pleasure in consuming a smattering of excellent local brews: Teton Ale, Old Faithful Ale, Sweetgrass of the Grand Teton Brewing Co. and Headstrong Pale Ale of the Big Hole Brewing Co.

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Yellowstone National Park – Day 3

Our third day in Yellowstone was a day of short trails but breathtaking vistas. We started with a steep descent down a series of switchbacks to what was quite possibly the most jaw-dropping panorama in the entirety of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This great canyon was carved up to 900 feet deep and half a mile wide by the Yellowstone River, and its walls are colored by the spewing of the surrounding hydrothermal features. All in all, its a ridiculously gorgeous site rivaling even that of the legendary Grand Canyon in Arizona.

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Later in the day, after thoroughly exploring the north and south rims, we drove around the park to the west side to view the rest of the Norris Geyser Basin. The remaining section was dubbed the Porcelain Basin and consisted of much more colorful thermal features than the rest of the basin. Living in these thermal features are a host of tiny heat-loving microorganisms called Thermophiles. These are some of the most extreme living conditions on Earth, and scientists study these conditions to better understand similar deposits and the possibility of life on Mars.

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Last stop for the day was Mud Volcano Area – a cesspool of churning rank. The sign at the head of the trail reads, “Pungent sulphur smells hint at the seething, muddy hydrothermal wonders you will encounter on this trail”. At times, while walking this short trail, Angela and I were overpowered by sulfuric clouds. What a strange corner of the planet!

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Yellowstone National Park – Day 2

On day two in Yellowstone, we began with breakfast in Canyon Village’s cafeteria, and then headed north toward the Mammoth Springs area via Roosevelt. At about 10:00 AM we spotted an audience along the roadside, most armed with tripods and giant zoom lens cameras, looking out onto the hill. There they were – grizzlies, two of them! We parked, grabbed the zoom lens, ran up the hill to where the other photographers, one of which was a park ranger, had positioned themselves. From what I could gather by listening to the park ranger, these two grizzlies were a mating pair that have been spotted many times over the past months.

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Canyon Village cafeteria

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Yellowstone Tour bus

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Tower Fall Overlook

 

What’s better than spotting a mating pair of grizzlies in yellowstone? Probably nothing, but it’s pretty amazing to watch a newborn baby deer and its mother interacting just after birth.

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Newborn baby deer

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Petrified tree

 

Later, on the way to Mammoth, we pulled aside to snap photos of a large elk grazing near the road. Just after that, upon arriving in Mammoth, I caught a female elk grazing in someone’s front yard. We saw grizzlies, newborn deer, and elk all within two hours of each other!

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Large male elk

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Female elk grazing in Mammoth

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Finally we arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs for a tour of its thermal features. The strange minerals and chemicals in the waters of Mammoth change the rock over time to form a beautiful rainbow of colored stone. What I discovered is that Mammoth Hot Springs is basically a giant mound of travertine, or limestone deposited by springs. For thousands of years, hot spring water makes its way up, cools, and leaves calcium carbonate.

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Liberty Cap. From the National Park Service website: This 37-foot hot spring cone marks the northern portion of Mammoth Hot Springs. Liberty Cap was named in 1871 by the Hayden Survey party because of its marked resemblance to the peaked caps worn during the French Revolution. Its unusual formation was created by a hot spring whose plumbing remained open and in one location for a long time. Its internal pressure was sufficient to raise the water to a great height, allowing mineral deposits to build continuously for perhaps hundreds of years.

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Minerva Terrace. From the National Park Service website: Minerva Spring is a favorite not only because of its wide range of bright colors but also for its ornate travertine formations. Since the 1890s, when records were first kept on the activity of Mammoth Hot Springs, Minerva has gone through both active and inactive periods. For several years in the early 1900s, it was completely dry, but by 1951 reports state that Minerva was again active.

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During some cycles of activity, water discharge and mineral deposition have been so great that boardwalks have been buried beneath mounds of newly deposited travertine. Consequently, an elevated and movable boardwalk now spans the hill in the vicinity of Minerva. In recent years, hot spring activity has shifted dramatically from Minerva to other features on the Lower Terraces, and back again.

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Overlook of the main terraces

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Mammoth Hot Springs panoramic

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Out last event of the day was a five mile back-country hike to Beaver Ponds. On the trail Angela identified tons of wildflowers and we even saw beaver dams at the ponds. That afternoon, on the way back to camp, we spotted more elk alongside the road.

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Angela and I attempt to outrun a storm.

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Beaver Ponds panoramic #1

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Beaver Ponds panoramic #2

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Chipmunk

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A beaver dam.


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Elk grazing

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Full moon with telephoto lens from camp