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The Blessing of the Fleet

Blessing of the Fleet

Rounding Bayou Lafourche, it occurred to us that this all would’ve looked more beautiful on a different day. It seems ungrateful and petty but blue skies rather than the uniform ceiling of grey would’ve set the colors of the flags in brighter contrast as they snapped against the booms of the trawl boats. Still, a dozen or so trawl boats decked out in flags and docked along the bayou wall in front of a Catholic Church is a dramatic sight to behold, especially when you aren’t expecting it. We were down the bayou for a different reason, having forgotten that this was happening, but when we came around the bend in Golden Meadow and saw the flags and the boats and all the people, we remembered that it was time for the Blessing of the Fleet.

Blessing of the Fleet

The Blessing of the Fleet is not a new tradition: it’s been present in some form or another among the French-Catholic fishing communities of South Louisiana for nearly 300 years. As the economics of trawling fluctuate, so does the trawler fleet, and thus the attendance of the Blessing. In recent years, at least along Bayou Lafourche, the Blessing has been sparsely attended. Many people we spoke to had talked about how the tradition seemed to be fading. But this year’s different: it’s the 100th anniversary of the Golden Meadow Catholic Church – Our Lady of Prompt Succor – so virtually every active trawl boat in town came to celebrate the Blessing.

Blessing of the Fleet

It goes like this: the trawl boats are decorated from hull to mast with as many flags as possible, from the little strings of triangles to the big whipping national emblems. The boats dock along the bayou-side in front of the church, one against another, three or four deep so that to get from the last boat to the shore one has to climb through three others. On board each boat families are grilling and drinking beer, sitting in folding chairs on the deck visiting, celebrating the impending start of the trawling season. All morning people show up and stroll along the shore, talking with trawlers and their families, who make it a point to invite people on board for a drink or a plate of roasted pig. When the priest comes out of the Church flanked by the Knights of Columbus in their suits, sashes and pointed hats, everyone lines up on their boats. The priest gives the blessing, asking for a bountiful and safe shrimping season. The Knights salute with their sabres and the whole blessing party boards the trawl boats.

Blessing of the Fleet

At this point, we were walking along the shore and happened to catch the eye of Captain Jared Guidry of the Lady Dolcina – a family friend in the way that most people down the bayou are family friends. He invited us on board, and we found a spot on deck next to his daughter’s crib, nestled against the knots of rigging and boom lines. In a flurry of activity, the stacks of boats dissolved into a line and the boat parade began. From the Bayou we watched the town of Golden Meadow pass by. The buildings along LA 1 are familiar, we’ve driven that road a thousand times, but from the bayou the town looks different, especially this time, on every dock sit people waving, watching the trawling fleet pass by, flags flying, a riot of color and culture. The pride people take in their heritage, the importance they place in this tradition is obvious in the overjoyed faces of children watching, and the misty eyes of the elderly, waving from their porches.

Blessing of the Fleet

In small communities like Golden Meadow, the local Catholic church hitting its centennial isn’t only a milestone for parishioners, it’s a milestone for the whole community. Though many people living along Bayou Lafourche consider themselves Catholic, many are not religiously so. In a place like Golden Meadow, Catholicism is as much a cultural aspect as a spiritual one, so people who wouldn’t normally attend mass make it a point to celebrate the church’s anniversary and are proud to participate in a tradition like the Blessing of the Fleet. These observations are no longer purely religious ceremonies. They’re community events, but they harken back to the region’s earliest francophone heritage, a heritage that’s still familiar and relevant to many living along the bayou.

Blessing of the Fleet

The coastal communities of Louisiana have faced many hardships in the last 300 years from bad policies to hurricanes to oil spills to cheap foreign shrimp, and while the list of hardships seems to be piling up faster and faster these days, communities have remained vibrant. Though newer industries like the oil field seem to have taken over the economy in the many towns scattered along the various bayous, events like the Blessing of the Fleet tie every roughneck back to his trawl boat heritage. These events remind people of their roots and their culture in a time when the larger national culture encourages everyone to leave such pasts behind. But in coastal Louisiana, the past is much more than history: it’s the reason for the present.

Blessing of the Fleet

We’re proud to have participated in the Blessing of the Fleet, and we’re proud to be associated with the people of Golden Meadow who’ve been scratching out a living from the sea for 300 years. The trawlers and their families have endured much worse than grey skies and dreamt of much more than a bright blue to contrast the colors of their flags. It’s our hope that they continue to endure. It’s our hope that the blessing bestowed by the priests of Our Lady of Prompt Succor ensures safety and prosperity for the crews of these trawl boats. Our region, culture, and dinner plates depend on them.

 

Kayaking Down Bayou Lafourche

Day 1 – Donaldsonville to Napoleonville – 4/9/14

This is my second attempt at paddling the 106-mile Bayou Lafourche from source to mouth. My first attempt, back in July of 2010, ended at mile 75 in heat stroke and exhaustion. That would not happen again, and I made sure of it by taking specific precautions. In 2010 I planned for six days of paddling, but on this trip I would allow for eight days. This made for shorter paddles and more time for breaks each day. Secondly, a week  before starting the trip, I drove the length of the bayou and knocked on a few doors, pitching my trip in hopes of lining up a few more places to camp. I found nice folks in Napoleonville and Raceland that didn’t mind a stranger camping on their bayou-side property. Most importantly, I paddled in April as opposed to late July – the dead of summer. On average in south Louisiana, April weather is typically twenty degrees cooler and half as rainy – perfect!

Headwaters in Donaldsonville

Water pumping underground, from the Mississippi River into Bayou Lafourche.

On the first day, Angela dropped me off on a long sloping bank in Donaldsonville. It would be a late start, but that didn’t matter. With only 14.5 miles to paddle on the day, I had plenty of time for dilly-dallying. Angela helps me unpack the car and strategically repack the boat’s hatches with several days worth of food and gear. The slope is not very far from the source where a relatively new pumping structure diverts Mississippi River water into Bayou Lafourche at up to 1,000 cubic feet per second. I can feel the current here in Donaldsonville, yet I know that this helpful push will not last the length of the bayou. I take advantage of the current and drift away from the bank, steering more than paddling at first.  As I wind through Donaldsonville, my boat is escorted by Black-bellied Whistling ducks later followed by Mallards. Passing through Belle Rose, the duck population dwindled but was supplemented by Great Egrets and lots of  turtles.

At the headwaters in Donaldsonville

At the headwaters in Donaldsonville

I make my way past uncountable logs that look like alligators, and I know that at some point on this trip, one of these logs will be an alligator. This one annoying sticky thought won’t leave me, and I am basically left with a fear of logs. I deal with it and paddle on.

On the north end of Paincourtville, I pull up onto a steep bank by a bridge where a fisherman named Jerald helped me out of my boat. I stretched my legs as Jerald cast his line into the middle of the bayou. Something immediately tugged at his line and he reeled in to reveal his catch – an eel! I thought he would throw it back into the water, but he kept the creature. We got to talking -Jerald mostly. He told me about how he likes to come out every day and fish for bass.

“I like to fish because it gets me out of the house,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m sitting inside all day. It passes the time.”

Jerald also mentioned that he’s noticed an increasingly strong flow of water in the bayou over the years. Of course he’s right about that. The Bayou Lafourche Fresh Water District aims to divert 1,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Mississippi into Bayou Lafourche. Several stages of the plan are already completed: new pumps at the headwaters and dredging of the bayou. Other steps are yet to be completed like replacing the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge, creating new control structures, and removing the weir in Thibodeaux.

I mentioned toJerald that I was working up an appetite. He recommended that I check out the Shell gas station in Paincourtville. “They have a little kitchen and make some real good seafood dishes there.” That’s all I needed to know.

Just as I was shoving off again Jerald called out, “Have you seen any gators yet?”

“No”, I replied. “You see any?”

“Oh yea. They’re all over the bayou. Be careful, I saw a big one right here just yesterday.”

The gator report did not help my newfound irrational fear of logs. A little further down the bayou, rushing past one thing or another, I must have missed the Shell station. Lunch would have to come from another source. Right as I realized that I had missed my stop, a large gator launched itself off the bank and swam right under my boat – at least half the size of the kayak so about eight feet. “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them,” was the lie that I repeated over and over to myself until I felt safe again.

Jerald with Eel in Paincourtville

Jerald with Eel in Paincourtville, LA

near Napoleonville

I arrived at Napoleonville at about 4pm only to realize that the bank on where I was supposed to land was too steep. I ended up docking on the opposite bank, attaching the wheel kit, and carrying my rig across a nearby bridge. I’m lucky that was even an option. Had that bridge not been there, I would have been forced to leave my boat in the water and scramble up the bayou-side with all my gear.

My stopover in Napoleonville was a product of those door to door visits from the week prior. In those kayaking cold calls, I was fortunate to knock on the door of Regina Smith. She and her family were inviting and friendly. When I arrived, Regina and her daughter were washing their car in the driveway. Regina’s husband was still at work. They took me in and showed me the area behind the driveway reserved for my tent. I began to unpack. Upon digging into my boat for the first time that day, I realized that the back hatch was flooded! Crackers, sleeping bag, tent, and hoodie were completely drenched. I figured out later that the flooding probably happened while pulling my boat up a steep bank. The steep incline sent water rushing to the back of the boat where my ancient, poorly caulked bulkheads, allowed water to pass right through. I spent at least an hour wringing out and hanging up items to dry.  Then, starving and craving calories of any kind, I caught wind of a burger joint two miles down the road. I walked the two miles to the Dairy Inn in Napoleonville, where I treated myself to a giant burger, french fries, and a beer.

Napoleonville

Landing in Napoleonville

Pit Stop. Napoleonville,LA.Gym. Napoleonville,LA.

Back at Regina’s place, the sun was still up, but I was exhausted . Sunshine or not, it was time for bed. Just as I was drifting off, the sounds of live acoustic guitar crept into my tent followed by singing. There was a concert happening in the backyard! I had to check it out, so I crawled out of my tent and took a peek. Regina’s son and daughter had kicked off a jam session on the back patio, and they were talented. Turns out, the daughter had been part of a team that won a national country music contest. She had a great voice, and the brother played a pretty good guitar. It was an amusing end to the day – being serenaded by siblings on Bayou Lafourche playing Oasis, “In a champagne supernova in the sky…”

Campsite. Napoleonville.

Campsite. Napoleonville.

 

Day 2 – Napoleonville to Thibodeaux – 4/10/14

I awoke hungry the next morning and needed some quick sustenance before paddling off. The Pop-n-Go convenient store across the bayou had mediocre biscuits and coffee, but they were calories nonetheless. “Breakfast” was followed by a stroll around town as I photographed the ramshackle, crumbling buildings of Napoleonville. After the photography stroll, I packed up the kayak, attached the wheel kit, and pulled everything back across the bridge where I shoved off for Thibodeaux.

Heading south from NapoleonvilleBetween Napoleonville and Labadieville.

I knocked out a bunch of miles right away, mostly due to the fact that I couldn’t find a place to stop. I just kept going, almost nine miles straight, until finally finding a great spot to get out of the boat – under the bridge in Labadieville. There, I took out all my electronics and threw them in a backpack, secured the rest of my stuff under the bridge, and climbed up and over into town where I quickly found Amy and Emily’s Cajun Cafe. There, I had a superb dinner of crab and shrimp gumbo with onion rings – one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a trip like this.

Twin city signLabadieville.Dansereau. Labadieville.Wendy's Hair Styling. Labadieville.Bayouside work near Thibodeaux.

Reenergized, I paddled on and arrived in Thibodeaux ahead of schedule. The bank alongside David and Sharon Gauthe’s house was steeper that I’d remembered from my previous trip down the bayou. The water level in the bayou was so low, that I had no choice but to commit to a wet exit. I threw my paddle up on the bank, rolled up my pants, and hopped out into the water.

I first met the Gauthe family back in the mid 90s. Their daughter Miki and I attended different high schools, but we were both very active in our respective school band programs. Our paths crossed at many of the same Lafourche Parish band festivals, contests, and honor bands. Miki and I quickly became friends, our friends circles meshed, and I eventually met her family. Everyone should have the pleasure to know a family like the Gauthes. Miki was always as kind as a person can be. Always smiling and laughing, she could lift anyone’s spirits. Her parents David and Sharon are exactly the same way: bubbly, warm, generous, and absolute salt of the earth through and through.

This stop at the Gauthe’s was scheduled, but I had not expected to see anyone at the house. They were supposed to be out of town. I figured that I would just drag my gear up to the house, camp out for the night, and take off in the morning. To my pleasant surprise, David and Sharon had not yet left for their trip – they were running a little late. I rolled over to the house and Mrs. Sharon popped out of the front door. I smelled like a stagnant bayou, but she invited me in without batting an eye.  Mr. David joined us as we caught up. I rolled my rig behind their house, set up my tent in their giant back yard, and started to hang up clothes and gear to dry. Mr. David came out and we talked for quite a while. He showed me how he repurposed a trampoline into a greenhouse for his vegetables and how the playhouse was actually set up on giant sleds so that he could pull it around with his tractor! A diagonal path cut straight through a massive patch of clovers – a clearing for all the children who would participate in the upcoming easter egg hunt. He told me about how he used to work at an old sugar mill, and he took me into his shed to show me the huge collection of ancient, pre-electricity, sugar mill tools. When we came out the shed, we were greeted by Mrs. Sharon. Very ready to hit the road, it was obvious that she had been looking for us. My tour of the shed was over.

Campsite. Thibodeaux.

Campsite. Thibodeaux.

From tent. Thibodeaux.

 

Day 3 – Thibodeaux to Raceland – 4/11/14

In the morning everything was soaked from the dew. All of the clothes and gear that I had hung up to dry was wetter than before. I also woke up with a very upset stomach – not the kind of ailment you’d like to have when hopping into a kayak for unknown hours. My morning felt wasted, waiting for things to dry and for my stomach to settle. I took this opportunity to charge my batteries, and finally at 9:10AM I felt confident enough to start my paddle.

Moss. Thibodeaux.

I stopped, after only two miles of paddling, at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodeaux – one of six sites that makes up the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve. I walked around town a little, probably just stalling for the unavoidable task ahead, getting around or over the weir in Thibodeaux.

20140409dtb_webedit063Break at Jean Lafitte Park. Thibodeaux.Ducks at Jean Lafitte Park. Thibodeaux.Ducks at Jean Lafitte Park. Thibodeaux.

A weir is a man-made blockage of a body of water, typically used to divert or change the flow in some way – think tiny dam. Bayou Lafourche currently has one such weir in Thibodeaux. On my last trip, I laughably pulled out of the bayou, attached the wheel kit, and lugged my 80+ pound rig through the city. By the time I got back to the bayou, I was exhausted. The steep slope back into the water was lined with jagged concrete blocks and oyster shells.  I shredded both my legs and the underside of my kayak on this sawtoothed slope.  My new plan was to pull out earlier, leave the boat in the water, and simply tow it over the weir. That idea fizzled as soon as I pulled up to the barrier. A fence jutting from the bank thwarted my plan (you can see it in the background of the image below). I would have to pull the boat up the bank and around again. This time, once atop the bank, I would only have to drag the boat about 200 feet before lowering it back down into the water. I got as close as I could to the weir and hopped out of my boat as carefully as I could, trying not to disturb a giant mother duck on its nest. I slowly pulled the heavy load up the steep slope, pushed it a few hundred feet along the downtown Thibodeaux sidewalk, and with a rope, slowly lowered it down the jagged concrete and oyster shell strewn slope on the other side of the weir. In 2011, it took me 1 hour and 50 minutes to navigate around the weir. On this trip I hopped around it in a mere 30 minutes.

Queen of the Wier. Thibodeaux.

Wier. Thibodeaux.

Wier. Thibodeaux.

After the weir, there was no place to stop for a while – too long actually. Thick vegetation and no trespassing signs kept me off the bank. Finally, about 4+ miles down the bayou, I spotted a very inviting concrete boat launch. There were no signs to turn me away, so I drifted in to stretch my legs and get a snack. I started to think about it. If I was going to stick around on someone else’s property, it might be a good idea to get permission to be there. On my way up the gravel walkway I noticed a stack of crab traps with a medium sized songbird trapped in one. The property had various animal traps, bails of hay, and lots of farming equipment. As I continued around the structure that I thought was a house, I came to realize that it wasn’t really a house but a large house-like building, probably serving as storage. Now, about 500 feet into the property, I saw something that made my heart sink – a large Bullmastiff. More importantly, it noticed me and it wasn’t tethered to anything! “No sudden movements,” I told myself. My head swiveled as I noticed something in the corner of my eye, a second Bullmastiff! “No sudden movements,” I repeated to myself as I backed away slowly and calmly. I blink and the two dogs simultaneously charge me. (Looking back on this incident with the dogs, I realize it was the only moment of the trip when I completely forgot about alligators.) Before I know what’s happening, both dogs are jumping up alongside me and nipping at my hands and face. I’m astounded by how high they can jump. They’re jumping, nipping, and shoving me around with their weight – I imagine 200+ pounds of dog, all muscle. I’m reminded of Will Farrell and Chris Kattan in that Saturday Night Live A Night at the Roxbury skit? I felt like one of their dance floor victims, only I might lose a finger. The tense walk back to the bayou-side seemed an eternity, but once I got to the concrete slope, the dogs stopped barking and just stared. It was like someone had flipped a switch, and that’s exactly what it was. If you look at the image of my puppy friend below, you can see the radial collar around his neck. As I paddled away, I thought about that poor songbird stuck in the crab trap. Curiosity had doomed us both, but at least I made it out of there.

One of two very angry guard dogs near Thibodeaux.

I made great time between Thibodeaux and Raceland for two reasons: (1) There was yet again no place to get out of the boat for a breather, and (2) I came within paddle’s reach of a 6+ foot alligator – TOO CLOSE! It’s amazing how motivating it is to see a deadly creature in your path. As I made my way south, I passed under the old Lafourche Crossing railroad bridge. The first trolling boats I’d seen on my trip marked my crossing over into Raceland – the place where I was born.

Lafourche Crossing Bridge

Lafourche Crossing Bridge

Robinson Carusoe like waterpark near Raceland

Robinson Carusoe like waterpark near Raceland

Trawl Boat

In Raceland, I had arranged to camp in the yard of the Matherne family – more kind folks who said “yes” when a stranger knocked on their door. Upon arrival, I set up my tent and spoke with Mr. Matherne on his gorgeous bayou-side gazebo. Hungry, I inquired about food. Pickings were slim, and I decided to walk about 3 miles to the po-boy shop. On foot along HWY. 1, something overhead caught my eye. It wasn’t a vulture. Maybe it was a large hawk? I lost it behind some trees and kept walking. About a quarter mile later an eagle swoops down, scoops a fish out of Bayou Lafourche, and climbs up and away over the tree line! This blew my mind. Not only have I never seen an eagle do that, but I’ve never even seen an eagle on the bayou. It was an astonishing moment that I would not soon forget.

Raceland destination for the night.

Raceland destination for the night.

Not long after this spectacle, I found myself walking past a seafood processor. A fisherman, loading crab pots into truck engaged me in a conversation, “Where you going”?
“Po-boy place up the road,” I replied.
“In Raceland?”
“Yep”
He looked back at his pots, “All I can offer you is the back of the truck, but it stinks because of the crab pots. Up to you.”
“No, that’s perfect.” I was excited to cut some time off my walk. “I’ve been paddling all day, so I  must smell bad anyway.”

We zipped there. Every minute of the ride smelled like rotten mud, but I couldn’t stop smiling. The drive took about 40 minutes off my walk. I ordered a catfish po-boy and a coke at the New Orleans Po-Boy Shop which used to be the old Frost Stop. The sandwich was good, and the lonely woman behind the counter was true blue. She hustled just to keep up with the after work / after school rush. I didn’t mind the long walk back to the Matherne’s place. The sun setting over my left shoulder, I thought about how hard I had worked for that catfish today. Then I thought about the eagle catching and eating his fish. Mr. Matherne and I talked some more on his beautiful gazebo overlooking the bayou. It was lined with cypress trees, and hidden amongst the brush all around was a system of pipes that emitted mosquito repellant. It was perfect. He told me about the history of his piece of land and his family. I felt very welcome there. I rested out on the gazebo until dusk and then retired to my tent.

New Orleans Po-Boys was the old Frost Stop in Raceland.

New Orleans Po-Boys was the old Frost Stop in Raceland.

Day 4 – Raceland to Lockport – 4/12/14

Very early the next morning, I found myself walking through the St. Mary’s cemetery. It was perfect cemetery weather – early Saturday, so the town was still asleep. Fog had rolled in overnight, and it was overcast. I read names on the headstones, wondering how many might be of relation to me. I found only 1 that shared my name – Amanda Lasseigne (formerly Naquin) was born in 1860 and died on February 4, 1938. I have been unable to find any additional record of her.

Foggy morning. St. Mary's Nativity Cemetery in Raceland.

Foggy morning. St. Mary’s Nativity Cemetery in Raceland.

At the Matherne's in Raceland. Foggy morning.

I packed up, thanked Mr. Matherne again, and started my short trip to Lockport. Just after the HWY 90 overpass about 4-5 miles down the bayou (see image below) I pulled off onto a smooth, freshly manicured grassy bank. Instantly, a man approaches me on a three-wheeler, sporting a poison spraying apparatus on his back. I am sure I’m about to get run off when he says, “Hey, you’re that guy that’s paddling all the way down to Fourchon right? You stayed at the Matherne’s last night right?” I couldn’t believe it, how did he know that? It turned out he was a cousin of Mr. Matherne and he was getting the property ready for a wedding. We chewed the fat for a moment and he went on to spray the weeds along the bayou. Small world down here.

HWY 90.Mathews, LA water tower.

Back in the boat again, I paddled straight through to Lockport. On the way I saw many more turtles, an 8+ foot gator (they were growing), and an uptick in troll boats.

Turtle sunning. Near Lockport.The

In Lockport, I had arranged to stay with my elementary school librarian (and my mom’s good friend) Mrs. Champagne. In the heart of Lockport, Bayou Lafourche intersects with Old Company Canal, and Mrs. Champagne’s backyard overlooks this canal. As I approached the bank, her neighbor saw me coming and offered his wharf. He was super nice and a big-time fisherman – the kind of guy that pulls in his limit every time he goes out. I am the exact opposite. If you take me fishing, we will catch no fish. Odds are, we will at some point debate whether or not to eat the bait. I visited with Champagne’s neighbor for a while, and he informed me that I was visiting at a great time. Lockport was hosting a Wooden Boat Festival – what a fantastic surprise.

Canal leading to Bayou from Lockport Bridge

Canal leading to Bayou from Lockport Bridge

I cleaned up and walked over to the other side of the canal to the Center for Traditional Louisiana Boat Building. There were several examples of hand made wooden boats (old and new), old engines, live music, boat rides on the old wooden boats with the old engines, a silent auction, men making flies for fly fishing, live duck carving, and good food. Starving from the paddling, I ate for two: crawfish étouffée and a pork grillades po-boy – both delicious. After the festival, I grabbed a snowball from Steph’s Snowballs and walked around Lockport for a change of scenery. I made my way back to Mrs. Champagne’s and set up for the night. That evening, serenaded by frogs and crickets, I slept right on the edge of the canal.

Kerry St. Pé of BTNEP and his hand crafted kayak. Lockport Wood Boat Festival.

Kerry St. Pé of BTNEP and his hand crafted kayak. Lockport Wood Boat Festival.

Lockport Wood Boat FestivalLockport Wood Boat Festival

Decoy Carving. Lockport Wood Boat Festival.

Old Lockport Lock circa 1850.

Old Lockport Lock circa 1850.

Confluence of Bayou Lafourche and Lockport Canal.Steph's Sno Balls. Lockport.

Camp site at Mr. Champagne's in Lockport

Camp site at Mr. Champagne’s in Lockport

Day 5 – Lockport to Cut Off – 4/13/14

I woke early on day five. With 19+ miles to cover before sunset, I had to start early – on the water at 7:10 am. I paddled out of Lockport and stopped at Bollinger Shipyard to snap a few photos of the three coast guard cutters being worked on. Today’s first surprise was HUGE wind in my face all day. It was hard to maintain even 3 mph! White caps rolled and even crashed on the boat. Wind gusts hit my chest pushing me back, nearly knocking the paddle out of my hands. I attempted to judge the swirls and hugged the bank, hoping for the trees and the earthen wall to cut the cross wind. It almost never made a difference.

Coast Guard Cutters at the Bollinger Shipyard.

After three hours and less than seven miles I stopped at the Valentine bridge to rest. With no energy to pull the boat out of the water, I secured it to a large rock and took a seat in the only place I could find shade, the Valentine Baptist Church front porch. I ate, drank, rested, found an old marble (saved it for my son), and talked to a fisherman before getting back on the water – refreshed.

Valentine bridge.

Valentine bridge.

Resting at the Valentine Baptist Church.

I started very slowly after the break. According to my GPS, exactly half a mile south of the Valentine bridge I paused and then tremendously increased my paddling speed for a solid mile. Those strange GPS stats mark the exact spot where I saw the biggest alligator I’ve ever seen in the bayou. I was hugging the LA 1 side, probably about 40 feet from the bank, and I look over and I see a gator head the size of a car engine, jaws open as if about to chomp down on something. It’s back came up out of the water and the tail. The beast was bigger than my 16.5 ft boat! It might as well have been a dinosaur. It was roaring at a duck about 6 feet above it in a tree – a marsh hen. I could clearly hear the guttural roar. I could feel the vibrations on the water, through my boat – it was quite a bellow. I paddled as fast and as hard as I could straight up the bayou, tearing through the stiff wind from the south, digging my paddles deep into the brown water. I made my best time on that leg, but all I could think of was how I would quit this adventure when I reached my parents’ house in Cut Off. I had no idea that I was sharing the water with beasts of this size. The largest gator I’d ever seen in the bayou in all my life was no more than 9 or ten feet long. This thing might have been over 17. And the GIRTH!  If that was in the water then I didn’t need to be.

Two hours later, after skipping almost all rests, I was well into Larose and feeling much better about the gator situation. My wife, driving back from New Orleans, spotted me paddling in the bayou and pulled over to say hello. This was quite a pick-me-up. The whole day I had also planned to make it to Cut Off in time to attend my little cousin’s birthday party. The wind in my face was keeping me off pace, but the gator incident put me right back on track. 20 miles and 8 hours 30 minutes from Lockport, I made it to Cut Off for 3:10 PM just in time to make it to the party.

Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Larose.

Ruth and Mr. Ben in Larose

The Wyoming. Cut Off, LA.

The Wyoming. Cut Off, LA.

Ldy Catherine and Capt. Toby. Cut Off, LA.Capt. Toby. Cut Off, LA.Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Cut Off, LA.My Melanie. Cut Off, LA.Under the Cut Off pontoon bridge.Tug and Large Barge. Cut Off, LA.

Arrival at Cut Off, LA destination.

Ben. One year old. Blowing out his candle.

Ben. One year old. Blowing out his candle.

Day 6 – 0 MILE DAY – 4/14/14

Thankfully, I had a day for buffer in my schedule because day six was postponed due to weather – a zero mile day. Severe storm warnings, wind advisories and flood warnings were in effect. Gusts up to 30 mph, 90% chance of storms, and the final nail in the coffin – the flood locks were closed in Larose and Golden Meadow. I couldn’t paddle south if I wanted to. Not a day for kayaking.

Day 7 – Cut Off to Leeville – 4/15/14

It was so incredibly windy on the morning of day #7 that I waited until 11:30AM to put in! There were reported sustained winds of 18 mph with gusts up to 35 mph! The only reason that I even attempted this paddle was because the winds were at my back, which turned out to be a blessing and a curse. Anytime the direction shifted just a little, waves would hit the back of my boat and turn me in the opposite direction. I did finally get in the water, broke my wheel kit trying to get to the launch in the morning though. I would not be able to wheel the kayak anywhere in a pinch – it was water only from here on out. I pushed off the bank and immediately, my body was a sail. I was flying down the bayou. Just two days before, I had a strong headwind and had trouble maintaining 3mph. Today I was cruising at 5mph, a light push with the paddle gave me 5.5 – 6 mph, twice as fast as the two previous days!

After only an hour of mostly steering as the wind pushed, I arrived at my grandparents house in Galliano. I put the boat up on rocks by the old net shop where my grandpa worked all his life, and walked up the street to their house. There, grandpa (Poppie) and I had some of my grandma’s potato, ham hock, and yam stew. It was GREAT – simple but delicious. My grandma was going to the dentist, so I missed visiting with her. Poppie was not happy because she was traveling alone. In a rare moment of openness, he mentioned to me that he worries about her when she drives by herself. It was very sweet. I sat there and ate my soup as Poppie grilled me about the trip, “Where did you start? Where are you sleeping? Why you want to do this again?”

Flood Gates in lower Golden Meadow, LA.

Flood Gates in lower Golden Meadow, LA.

I made great time through Galliano and Golden Meadow. The waterway widened significantly in south Golden Meadow and continued to widen for the remainder of the trip. As it widened, the waves got bigger, making steering very hard. I tweaked my back from all of the constant overcompensating for cross-winds. Just after the lock in Golden Meadow, I pulled onto shore to get photos of the old dead oaks in the marsh.

Dead Oaks along the Bayou.

Dead Oaks along the Bayou.

Dead Oaks along the Bayou.

Dead Oaks along the Bayou.

Break in Lower Golden Meadow.

Pelican. Leeville, LA.

Pelican. Leeville, LA.

I got into Leeville and unfortunately could not find a place to pull up onto the shore near my campsite, so I had to paddle another hour around to the canal leading to Boudreaux’s Waterfront Motel – the last bit right into the wind. It was a gut check. All day, with the wind at my back, I had maintained about 5.5 mph. Now, with that gale in my face, I was struggling to hit 2 mph! I arrived at Boudreaux’s wet and freezing. The owner’s son was huddled with his bible group, and he took a break to show me around and where to change. Warm clothes and an added layer of rain gear over it warmed me up quickly. To get an idea of how cold it was, when I came back outside the bible group was setting up behind an exterior wall to block the cold wind.

Trawl Boats. Leeville, LA.

Elevated HWY 1 in Leeville, LA.

Elevated HWY 1 in Leeville, LA.

Gail's Bait Shop. Leeville, LA.

I walked just across the road to the Leeville Restaurant for a seafood feast – half fish half shrimp platter with sweet potato waffle fries. After dinner, I set up camp in a grassy patch near the hotel, as pre-arranged with the owner. Setting up was a challenge with the wind and the temps falling, but before long, all tent spikes were plunged securely into the rocky ground. The rain fly plus my trusty Mountain Hardware sleeping bag made for a very comfortable evening in spite of the bitter cold – the harshest overnight conditions of my trip, yet the best night’s sleep.

The Leeville Restaurant.

Fish and Shrimp Platter. The Leeville Restaurant.

Fish and Shrimp Platter. The Leeville Restaurant.

Leeville, LA.Boudreaux's Motel. Leeville, LA. I camped here.Leeville, LA.

Day 8 – Leeville to Fourchon – 4/16/14

Finally, the big push to the end. On this, the last day of my journey, I had to cover 14 miles from Leeville to Port Fourchon. In Leeville, the bayou was so wide that it looked more like a lake. It was so wide that I even had trouble navigating at times. Everything looked the same as waves came at me sideways, turning my boat left and right. It was a fight.

Leeville to Fourchon.

Also, this was a lonely day of paddling. The bayou side was no longer lined with houses. It was just me, gulls, and the marsh. Eventually, I made it to the north end of the port. At Port Fourchon, there were workers hanging off of supply vessels, cleaning or painting. Many of them yelled something or other at me, “Hey, what are you doing down there? Hey, nice boat. Hey, where you going? Hey, where you coming from?”, but at least there was someone that could talk back to me. Earlier in the day, I found myself talking to the birds and singing songs to pass the time. Leeville to Port Fourchon had exactly the seclusion that I’d been hoping for on this trip – isolation, silence, and nature. It was beautiful, but I realize now that had the whole trip been this isolating, I might have gone nuts.

This last day to Fourchon had fewer places to stop and stretch/rest than I thought there would be, so once again, I charged through it and made great time. The banks were infested with gnats. I could only stop for a short spell before being run off by a cloud of the tiny pests. I was cursed with crosswinds all day, and crosswinds mean crashing waves. Crashing waves means a wet, cold, and miserable cockpit. These conditions were my incentive to move fast and get it done.
And then there was another surprise. As I bypassed the port and all of its giant ships, I hugged the western bank. Once, when I got close enough, I noticed that the ground was covered in Prickly Pear Cactus – not what I was expecting to see in the southern Louisiana wetlands.
Edison Chouest boats at Pot Fourchon.

Edison Chouest boats at Pot Fourchon.

Break near Port Fourchon.

Prickly Pear Cactus!! Port Fourchon.

Prickly Pear Cactus!! Port Fourchon.

I had made a decision early on that going through the main shipping channel, into the gulf, would be foolish. If I wasn’t crushed by the giant vessels in the channel or flipped by their giant waves, then I would still have to make a u-turn out of the channel, and come back to the beach through the rock jetties. Plan B was to take the old pass to the east which spilled into Bay Champagne, which in turn was connected to the Gulf of Mexico. It was safer, smarter, and a more direct path to the beach.
When I got to the split, the actual “fourche” (or fork) in Lafourche, I took the eastern course. In no time, the bayou narrowed and I wound through marsh to the back of Bay Champagne, escorted by a porpoise the whole way. After 106 miles of paddling, the water finally shallowed into a bank of sand. This marked the end of Bayou Lafourche. I stepped out of the boat and walked onto the sand. There were still hundreds of feet of tidal zone between me and gulf.
I was very surprised to find that crews were still cleaning up from the 2010 BP Oil Spill – almost 4 years to the day since the accident! The beach was actually fenced off, closed off to the public. I couldn’t even access the actual beach. After all that paddling, all I could do was look out at the Gulf from afar. If I had gone through the main shipping channel, then I would have been stuck on the wrong side of an endless orange BP fence. Either way, my current location was a dead end. I would actually have to get back in my boat and paddle back to the the last road, about half a mile, and call for my pick up. My trip was over, and in the end I’m glad I did. Even though I was born and raised here for the first 17 years of my life, I feel like the last seven or so days have helped me to know the Bayou even more. If you’re interested in paddling Bayou Lafourche, I suggest you head on over to the Barataria-Terrebone National Estuary Program website and sign up for their annual Paddle Bayou Lafourche trip.
End of the line. Bay Champagne and The Gulf.

End of the line. Bay Champagne and The Gulf.

 

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.

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.

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

Biking River Road: “West Bank”

On January 5th, 2008 I took my second major cycling trip up the Mississippi River, this time on the West Bank. This journey was thrown together quickly, no maps, no weeks of planning, no grandiose justifications for putting my body through a little torture, just an inclination to ride up the river again for a contrastive perspective.

This time around, the weather was completely different. On my last ride up the river, the heat index was well above 100, but this time around the forecast called for a morning chill that would slowly warm to mild. Another big difference between cycling in August and January is the amount of daylight for a given day. In our hemisphere, the difference between a mid-August day and an early January day is about 2 hours. On this ride I would have about 10 hours of sufficient light, probably not enough to reach Baton Rouge from New Orleans.

There was no need to over-think these facts. I simply wanted to ride my bicycle.

I started before dawn at my home in the Marigny (a neighborhood just east of the French Quarter). First things first, I had to cross the Mississippi River to get over to the West Bank. The only safe option for river crossing via bicycle is the ferry, and the closest ferry to my home is the Canal St. Ferry. I met a gentleman while waiting for the ferry. He had already crossed the river once earlier in the morning to go to his construction job, but he had picked up a nail with his tire in doing so. For some reason that was never quite clear, he was walking his bike back to the West Bank to fix the flat and go back to work. He told me about how he likes to grab a beer on his lunch break and consume the beverage down here by the ferry dock. “No one gives you any trouble down here,” he said.

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A view from the bow of the Canal St. ferry. Left to right: Crescent City Connection Bridge, Creole Queen Paddle-wheeler (the riverboat), and the Riverwalk Shopping Center.

After crossing the river, I headed northish up the paved river levee. One of the first major sites is Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World, a series of warehouses and offices where Mardi Gras is basically born every year. Most of the major floats, sculpted props, and figures of New Orleans’ premiere festival come from this location.

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The Greater New Orleans Bridge, a.k.a. the GNO, a.k.a. the Crescent City Connection Bridge, linking the east and west banks of the river.

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Jefferson Parish according to the water tower. Little Richard at the Boomtown! Honestly, I thought he was dead.

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The Harvey Canal.

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The Huey P. Long Bridge, completed in 1935 as the first bridge to span the Mississippi River in Louisiana.

I arrived at the Avondale Union Pacific train yard and was instantly confused. You would think that it is easy to simply follow a river, but roads veer, cross-streets confuse, and then train yards throw everything out of order. I just kept riding and hoped for the best. In the end I think I just lucked out.

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The American Legion building in Ama, LA (pop. 1,200) - St. Charles Parish.

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All my life, crossing from the New Orleans metro area to St. Charles Parish en route to my home in Lafourche Parish, I have referred to this bridge as the Luling Bridge, but it is officially named the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge. The following Wikipedia article sums up the bridge’s history well:

The Luling Bridge (also known as the Hale Boggs Memorial Bridge) is a cable-stayed bridge over the Mississippi River in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. It is named for United States Congressman Hale Boggs. The bridge was dedicated by Governor David C. Treen and Bishop Stanley Ott of Baton Rouge, then opened to traffic on October 8, 1983 connecting Louisiana Highway 18 on the West Bank and Louisiana Highway 48 on the East Bank. Ten years later, the Luling Bridge was incorporated into the newly completed Interstate 310.

The Luling Bridge was the first major cable-stayed bridge in the United States, although it was not the first (that designation belongs to the Cable Bridge in Washington). The bridge has an uncommon design which uses very few cables. Additionally, the bridge deck is closer to a box girder in design than a suspended deck. The bridge has a bronze color intended to blend with the muddy waters of the Mississippi River.

The Luling Bridge was also the first large weathering steel bridge in the United States, intended to protect the bridge from corrosion in the wet and humid conditions of coastal Louisiana. Unfortunately, while the outside of the bridge has performed excellently, the inside has shown significant rust due to a design flaw which allows insufficient airflow within structural columns.

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You have to use your imagination with signs like this.

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Home Place Plantation.

Historical marker reads:

HOME PLACE. Built in 1790s, this French Colonial raised cottage is of West Indies bousillage construction. Owners included Labranche, Fortier, Gaillaird. Keller family ownership since 1885. National Historic Landmark.

The Holy Rosary Cemetery. Wow, what an absolute travesty! Yes, it is ultimately very cool to be buried right alongside the Mississippi, but to be interred on property COMPLETELY SURROUNDED by noisy industrial plants, leaking their toxic gloom into the air, well I would hardly call that resting in peace.

I’m not the only one who thinks that this is heinous. A friend of mine told me a story about this cemetery in which family members at a burial hastened the ritual because those in attendance were visibly bothered by the circumstances. What a shame, for a person’s last day to be remembered like that, rushed prayer, some quick flowers, and SLAM! Everybody jumps in their cars and speeds back down the river to the after-party. To me, this is just another strong argument for cremation.

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Waterford 3 Nuclear Unit in in Killona, Louisiana.

Wikipedia article states:

This plant has one Combustion Engineering two-loop pressurized water reactor. The plant produces 1,218 megawatts of electricity since the sites last refuel in May 2008. It has a dry ambient pressure containment building. Waterford is operated by Entergy Nuclear and is owned by Entergy Louisiana, Inc.

* * *

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Germans saved New Orleans!?

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St. John the Baptist Catholic Church.

Historical marker reads:

ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST CATHOLIC CHURCH – 1770 – From which civil parish was named. First church on second German Coast when Louisiana was colony of Spain. Served west and east banks of river until 1864. Old cemetery contains grave of wife of Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and John Slidell family tomb.

 

Evergreen Plantation. Constructed in approximately 1832, this sugar plantation near Wallace, LA operated until about 1930 and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1992. The outstanding things about this plantation are (1) 29 of the 37 buildings are Antebellum making it one of the most intact plantations in the south (2) 22 intact slave quarters exist on the north side of the grounds.

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Slave quarters alongside this magnificent row of oaks.

As far as I could tell, this water tower is the sole inhabitant of Wallace. No, I know that’s not true, but all I saw of town was this water source. Side-note, I pulled off the road on the left there to adjust my brakes or something, and when I attempted to re-enter the highway, my tires caught the lip of the tar and threw me off the bike. It was ridiculous – no one around, no apparent danger, fine one minute, then in an instant my shin suddenly looks like roast beef. I mopped up with an extra shirt and trudged on.

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This, sadly, is the best shot I could manage of the Laura Plantation.

I made the mistake of skipping breakfast before this ride, which is a testament to how poorly the excursion was strategized. By the time I reached Laura, I was ready to trade my bike in for a meat pie, so taking a picture of Laura was the least of my worries. I pulled up to the tour office, and luckily ran into a gentleman that I had met once before, tanking up his tour bus near my school in New Orleans. I say luckily because, once again “planning”, I had forgotten my bike lock key, therefore I couldn’t go into any buildings or leave my bike anywhere out of view. My tour bus driving acquaintance listened to my sad story, went into the Laura office, called a local restaurant, and made arrangements for me to store my bike in a secure back room while I ate. How amazing is that?! I gladly backtracked a half mile to the B & C Seafood Market & Cajun Restaurant where they were waiting for me.

B & C Seafood Market & Cajun Restaurant in Vacherie, LA was very receptive to my ridiculous situation. I pushed my bike in through the seafood market and stored it in a secure back room. B&C offers quite a menu: home-smoked andouille sausage, shrimp, soft-shell crab, crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo, seafood platters, oysters, Lac Des Allemands catfish, hush puppies, alligator or turtle sauce piquant, red beans & rice, homemade bread pudding with whiskey sauce, and tarte a la’ bouille (cajun custard pie).

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I had the crawfish stew, "Crawfish richly seasoned in brown roux sauce served over rice." Sure, I was starving, but this dish would get five out of five stars any day of the week.

 

More images from B&C:

 

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dressed gator

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bathroom

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Vacherie Water Tower

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Put your imagination cap on...

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St. Joseph Plantation

St. Joseph Plantation is about a quarter mile north of and completely overshadowed by Oak Alley Plantation. There were no placards or markers out front, but the official website states:

This 1000 acre plantation is the birthplace of H. H. Richardson, one of America’s most important architects of the 19th century. The maison principale was acquired by a French doctor, who was hired to care for the plantation masters, their families, and slaves. The “Louis XIV of Louisiana”, Valcour Aime, gave this plantation to his daughter Josephine as a wedding gift, fully furnished and with a full staff of slaves.

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Oak Alley Plantation.

The historical marker reads:

Built (1837-1839) by Jacques T. Roman, this fine example of Greek Revival architecture is famous for its alley of 28 evenly spaced live oak trees, believed to be at least 100 years older than “Big House”. A National Historic Landmark.

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This photo was taken with my back to Oak Alley, facing the river levee. I was on the fence about whether or not to take a tour of Oak Alley, but then I realized again that I was unable to lock up my bike. This was probably for the best considering that I was running out of daylight with still many river bends ahead of me.

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Bon fire pillars such as these are typically burned on new Year's Eve, but somehow, this stack was overlooked.

* * *

Then came the unexpected segment of the trip, the part that launched my interest in my own personal culture. I figured that this side of the river would be similar to the other for better or worse: live oaks, the foul stench of industrial exhaust, modest folks, stately antebellum homes, neglected highways, and amazing food. I did not however, expect to find such a strong anchor to my Cajun heritage. Since taking this trip, I have launched into genealogy research and started to look closely at preserving the history of my lineage.

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I realize that this isn't the exact spot where Acadians first settled, but it's still pretty neat that we can pinpoint so accurately the first location where our exiled forefathers settled in Louisiana, pre-Declaration of Independence.

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I can sort of follow this marker, up to the part about Havana, Cuba controlling the diocese.

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Memorial dedicated to the descendants of Acadian settlers.

The plaque reads:

Dedicated to the descendants of the first Acadian settlers of St. James Parish, who visited this site August 8, 1999 on occasion of the Congress Mondial Acadien – Louisiane 1999.

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Oddly, the statue was covered in ladybugs.

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Welcome, LA Water Tower

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The Sunshine Bridge

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Donaldsonville. This sign had a lot to say, so I thought it wise to simply post the photo. Notice that the town was capitol of Louisiana from 1830 - 1831.

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As I pulled into downtown Donaldsonville, LA the sun began its decent into the western horizon. Realizing that I wouldn’t have the daylight to reach Baton Rouge, I called my wife and requested an earlier pick up – Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, LA. I found the following Wikipedia write-up both informative and funny (regarding New Orleans):

Donaldsonville is named after landowner William Donaldson. In 1806 Donaldson commissioned architect and planner Barthelemy Lafon to plan a new town. This served briefly as the Louisiana capital (1830 – 1831) after New Orleans was deemed “too noisy”.

Although Donaldsonville is a small town, it has many historic sites. Its museum, the River Road African American Museum, has been included on the state’s African American Heritage Trail. It also has parks, shopping centers, and Civil War grounds.

The official newspaper of the city is the Donaldsonville Chief, which has been published since 1871.

Below are the headwaters of Bayou Lafourche, once connected to the Mississippi River as an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1903-04 the outlet was blocked here on this spot, cutting off the people of Lafourche Parish from all river traffic. Before the dam, riverboats actually paddled down the bayou and visited towns. Imagine a floating mall. More importantly, before the stoppage, higher levels of fresh water flowed down the bayou, cleansing the marshes and providing the people of Lafourche with constant supply of fresh water. Today, a portion of the Mississippi is pumped into Lafourche here in Donaldsonville, but the flow isn’t enough to fight back the salt water intrusion. Efforts are underway to increase the volume of fresh water allowed into the bayou. I grew up on this bayou, fished in it, swam in it, but I had never been to the source. One thing that still puzzles me – what in the world is that fellow fishing for down by that pumping station? (just to the right of the small metal building in photo)

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Headwaters of Bayou Lafourche - pumped in from the Mississippi River.

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"The Walter Lemann, Sr. Pumping Station Fresh Water District" plaque is a testament to Mr. Lemann and his "untiring efforts" to return fresh water to this outlet.

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I paused to take a photo of my silhouette against this sugarcane field between Donaldsonville and White Castle on Hwy. 1.

 

Final destination: Nottoway Plantation in White Castle, LA. The town was named after this plantation, which claims to be the largest Antebellum specimen in the South. Some quick stats: the building was finished in 1859 for the John Hampton Randolph family, restored in 1981, has 64 rooms, 53,000 square feet, and once housed a bowling alley (now a museum and banquet area). I arrived just as the sun retired for the day.

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In researching this Louisiana palace, I found one very captivating story written by a fellow Lafourche Parish native, Brian Doucet. Now the director of WDI Design in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Brian keeps up a “walking blog” titled One Foot Forward. Repeat. On September 19, 2006, as part of his virtual hike along the Mississippi, he wrote an insightful account of how Emily Jane Liddell Randolph saved Nottoway from the destructive Union army. (I love this story):

John Hampden Randolph planned and built Nottoway, but it was his wife Emily Jane who saved it from destruction.

Emily Jane Liddell Randolph was the mother of ten children when the civil war erupted. In 1862 Randolph took his slaves and went to Texas to work a cotton plantation there in order to keep himself solvent. The Randolphs sent their teenage daughters away to safer territory, and Mrs. Randolph remained on the plantation with the younger children, two visiting lady friends, and a few of her slaves. One of her daughters, Cornelia, kept a diary. It is from this diary as well as from preserved letters and documents that we know of Emily Jane’s courage.

At one point in 1862, when she was 45 years old, she faced down the Union Navy. Gun boats were sailing by the house, and union troops had begun to bivouac on the lawn. Armed only with a dagger which she tucked into her belt, she went out on the front gallery. She was determined not to let the union troops into her house. Many houses along the river had been abandoned. These deserted houses if not burned, were destroyed by looting and vandalism. As she stood on the front gallery a group of Confederate soldiers opened fire on the Union troops.

The gun boats on the river returned the fire. Though they were not aiming at the house, much of the fire hit it or landed on the grounds. When the firing became heavy, Emily Jane gathered her children, friends, and slaves and took them all to the ground floor where the walls were four feet thick. When the barrage was over, she alone had the courage to mount the stairs and assess the damage. It was in that same year that Emily Jane gave birth to her eleventh and last child, Julia Marceline. Although the Union army encamped several times on the lawn in the course of the war, they never entered the house except to search for weapons.

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After locking up my bike to a small tree, I hiked a short distance over the river levee, and spotted this cross which I surmised marks a grave. I walked down to the cross but saw no markings on it at all. My post-ride research on the matter has been to no avail. Who is buried across the levee from Nottoway Plantation? Now, with the sun all but set, the mosquitos had begun their incessant onslaught. I crossed back over the levee, ducked into the plantation office, and awaited the arrival of my ride. While I had not reached Baton Rouge on the west bank, Nottoway marked exactly 100 miles on this trip – my second “century” as a cyclist and an overall delightful ride.

Biking River Road: “East Bank”

by Taylor Lasseigne / August 18th, 2007 /

riverroadmap_mThis is a story about a cycling trip that follows every curve of the Mississippi River’s east bank, from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, LA. On this self-propelled two-wheel adventure, the clock started at 5:40 AM when my feet left the ground and found the pedals of my Trek bicycle. The idea for the trip however, was realized much earlier.

A few years ago, I found myself living in Philadelphia and feeling guilty about all of the things I had taken for granted in Louisiana. Realizing what I had, now that it was gone, I began to formulate grand excursions with New Orleans as the home base. My Holy Grail, the trip that I loved to sit and daydream about, was a cycling trip from New Orleans to Biloxi, MS, ending in a night of camping on the beach. Another trip put me cycling from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on River Road along the Mississippi River. Another trip on my back-burner had me paddling and camping through the swamps of Southeastern Louisiana. Over time, these festering plans began to germinate and were truly fertilized, as I was exposed to hiking, climbing, cycling, and paddling for the very first time in and around Philadelphia.

We fast-forward a few years to when Hurricane Katrina comes ashore, uninvited, to rearrange most of the Gulf South. She moved cars, trees, homes, businesses, bridges, and roads – including mammoth chunks of the road from New Orleans to Biloxi, obliterating any chance of me biking that route any time in the near future. With this crushing blow came that “don’t know what you have until it’s gone” feeling again.

After two months away from the city, we came back, shimmied our rancid fridge to the curb, and started to make a go at it – not that we even had floodwater in the house we were renting, but by simply deciding to remain in New Orleans, we were basically agreeing to climb uphill for an indefinite amount of time.

The trip to Biloxi was a wash – out of the question for at least a few years. My eyes were opened to the fragility of nature, and I began to plot my next move with haste, in hopes that I could complete the voyage before Mother Nature struck again. I would bike from New Orleans to Baton Rouge along the river levee, taking in all of the sites along the way.

Let us fast-forward a few more years. For my 28th birthday, my wife rallied a bunch of my friends to pitch in on a bike for me. I got a Trek Hybrid, a real traveling cyclists bike capable of long road trips and strong enough to tolerate the pot marked streets of New Orleans – top of the line parts made in the USA.

Now I had the right bike for the job, but when was I going to take this trip? I started to crunch the numbers, began plotting points on maps, and I slowly began to realize the weight of this gut-check. The trip was about 130 miles, which I figured by plotting the distance in my Google Earth software approximately eight times. Each mapping of the route in Google Earth took approximately three hours, so the distance I came up with, 130 miles, is the average yielded by approximately 24 hours of tedious, late-night clicking and dragging – lots and lots of clicking and dragging. I now had to calculate potential trip duration. Here’s what I knew: (1) I would want to stop frequently for hydrating, eating, and photography (2) Daylight was limited (3) I can average about 14 mph whilst carrying a load of supplies, with the wind at my back. A little more math told me that if I biked 130 miles non-stop at about 13 mph, then the trip would take about 10 hours. Well, I knew I wasn’t going to go without stopping, so I added 2 hours of time for eating, resting, and another hour for taking in the scenery. This alteration left me facing a 13 to 14 hour day on a bicycle in the unreasonable, remorseless August heat of Southern Louisiana. One might ask, “Why take this trip in the summer?” Well, I knew that I would need at least 12 hours for the trip but probably more like 14, so I had to take advantage of our hemisphere’s longest days. A scheduled vacation to the Pacific Northwest and a summer job as a tugboat deckhand in the beginning of the summer ruled out those relatively cooler months. If I didn’t seize my chance in mid August, then my schedule would soon be consumed by my teaching gig, which started on August 20th. The trip would take a backseat to my first real full time teaching job and possibly fade away into adventure purgatory.

The forecast for August 18th was suitable for a long ride – wind mostly to my back and some cloud cover. Unfortunately, the forecast also predicted a very intense heat advisory for the hottest part of the day. I liked my chances, so I packed up, printed and laminated maps, and got as much sleep as a man can on the eve of such an exciting endeavor.

 

* * * * *

 

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Bike prepared with distances, cyclocomputer (for mileage, MPH, time, and speed), and headlamp.

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The river-side tip of Audubon Park in New Orleans is know by locals as "The Fly". I started my ride here at 5:40 AM. The next few photos were taken a few days before the ride, as it was too dark to photograph on ride day.

There is a collection of landmarks at the foot of Williams Blvd. at the river. The most prominent monument commemorates the first world championship heavyweight prize fight held in the United States. The plaque reads:

In the predawn hours on May 10, 1870, a crowd of about 1,000 people left the New Orleans Jackson Street Railroad Station for Kennerville. There, in a makeshift ring, in the back of William Butler Kenner’s old sugar house about 100 yards from the Mississippi River, Jed Mage of Beeston, Norwich, England beat Tom Allen of Birmingham, England in 10 rounds. The prize for the bare-knuckles event was $2,500, winner take all.

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Another marker, although not as prominent as the fighters, denotes La Salle’s Landing in 1682. The marker reads:

In 1682, the French explorer, Robert Cavalier De La Salle landed in an Indian village later to be know as the city of Kenner. Proclaiming ownership in the name of Louis XIV, King of France, he erected a cypress cross to commemorate the historic event.

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Approaching the grain elevators near Destrahan.

Below is the first photo actually taken on August 18th, 2008. Historical marker reads:

Destrahan Manor House. Constructed 1787-1790 for Robert de Longny. Inherited by Jean Noel d’Estrehan 1800. Bought from heirs of Pierre A. Roost in 1914 by Mexican Petroleum Co. Donated 1972 to River Road Historical Society by American Oil Co.

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Destrahan Manor House

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The Bonnet Carre Spillway. When the Mississippi River crests and flooding occurs, the Bonnet Carre Spillway protects New Orleans and other areas further downstream by opening its gates and diverting some of the river's flow to Lake Pontchartrain.

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I stumbled upon this airstrip within the flood zone of the spillway, but this isn't any ordinary airstrip. This well manicured lawn is meant to facilitate the take offs and landings of remote control planes. The spillway is also a hotbed for ATV activity, complete with designated sections for "cuttin' it up."

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Graugnard House

Historical marker reads:

Graugnard House. Built at the turn of the century as a retirement home for Leon Graugnard, a French immigrant from Basses-Alpes, France. Graugnard, married to Eva Bacas, was a respected and accomplished businessman and was known as one of the most successful sugar planters in Louisiana. The house is the surviving structure of Terre Haute Plantation owned by Graugnard and his heirs. Emile Graugnard, Eva Graugnard Guidry, and Marie P. Graugnard.

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This cistern behind the house shows how the Graugnards would have caught and stored drinking water.

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San Francisco Plantation House

The San Francisco Plantation House is a National Historic Landmark in St. John the Baptist Parish, located about three miles west of Reserve, LA. I was unable to locate a marker with any information, but was able to dig up some statistics from a National Park Service website:

The opulent San Francisco Plantation House is a galleried house in the Creole manner that has been pictured in American, British, and Swedish periodicals as one of the major sites of the New Orleans area. Constructed between 1849-50, the San Francisco Plantation House is one of the most ornate of Louisiana’s plantation houses. San Francisco, with its potpourri of architectural designs, its immense and ornate roof construction, and the paintings decorating the ceilings and door panels in the house’s parlors, exemplifies the “steamboat Gothic” style. The exterior of the home resembles a layer cake, with a simple ground floor where brick columns support the gallery across the front and halfway back the sides. A double stairway leads from this gallery to the second floor gallery where fluted wood columns with cast-iron Corinthian capitals support an overhanging deck. The main living area is on the second floor instead of the ground level. The attic is a Victorian construction that gives the house a unique look with the hip roof pierced by tall dormers with diamond-paned, Tudor-arched windows.

San Francisco’s floor plan is unique as well, but the interior’s primary significance lies in the fine murals attributed to Dominique Canova. The cost of San Francisco Plantation House, along with the paintings and other interior decorations, may have given rise to the house’s name. One legend holds that the French phrase “son saint-frusquin,” or “the shirt off his back,” was a description of what the construction of the house cost its first owner, Edmond Marmillion. This became mistranslated into San Francisco. Another legend holds that the name celebrated the port of entry to northern California, then undergoing the gold rush of 1849. A further legend states that the name changed from Sans St. Frusquin to San Francisco when Achille D. Bougere purchased the plantation house in 1879. San Francisco was originally preserved by the efforts of Mr. and Mrs. Clark Thompson. The house is now owned by the San Francisco Plantation Foundation and has been restored to its former glory.

 

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Grammercy Bridge (click photo for detailed view)

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One of several markers along the river noting estates that were reclaimed by mother nature via the Mississippi River

Further down the river, I came upon a cluster of very old buildings. A marker reads:

LUTCHER. Established in 1891 by H.J. Lutcher, co-owner of Lutcher & Moore Cypress Lumber Co. The town, incorporated in 1912, grew around the sawmill built on the plantation of Pierre Chenet, developer of world-famous Perique tobacco.

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sugarcane grinder

Standing between these old buildings is an original sugarcane grinder. The placard reads:

SUGARCANE GRINDER. Donated by Al Robert, Burnside, LA. Restored by Dee Jenkins, member of St. James Historical Society, with help from many dedicated people. Especially Bill Clopton, owner of “On the Spot Welding” Lutcher, LA.

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Grist mill stone as seen at the base of the sugarcane grinder in the previous photo.

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Old kettle for boiling sugar.

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St. Joseph Catholic Church in Paulina, LA

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Paulina water tower.

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Large Live Oak growing on the Mississippi River levee.

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I took a detour into the brush between Paulina and Convent. The overgrown grassy path spit me right out onto the banks of the Mississippi.

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The semisolid sediment beneath my feet was crusted from the sun but barely firm enough to hold up my weight. With every step closer to the river, the silt gave way more and more until I no longer felt it was safe to walk further.

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A view north along the Mississippi.

In Convent, LA I came upon a site that took me by surprise – the Manresa House of Retreats. A marker across from the gate reads:

MANRESA HOUSE OF RETREATS. Since 1931 the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) have operated a retreat house here for the spiritual development of the laity. The grounds and several of the buildings were the site and home of the Jefferson College founded for the education of the youth of St. James Parish.

The main building dates from 1842; the President’s House and Gate Houses from 1836.

After Jefferson College failed in 1848, Louis Dufau of New Orleans operated the Louisiana College here: this college failed in 1856. In 1859, Valcour Aime purchased the site and erected a chapel in memory of his children. From 1862 – 1864, the Federal Troops occupied the buildings during the Civil War.

In 1864, Mr. Aime donated the properties to The Society of Mary (Marists) who established St. Mary’s Jefferson College, which operated until 1927, when it was closed.

The Jesuits purchased the properties in 1931 and since that time have conducted retreats based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Each year over 5,000 laypersons, religious and priests make retreats here

For the Greater Glory of God

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Manresa House of Retreats

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I was caught off guard by it simply being there. I didn’t know there was a huge Catholic retreat space along the Mississippi. Also, believe it or not, I think the deep-seeded divinity of the grounds healed my woes. No kidding, when I arrived at those gates, I was a mess: head throbbing from extensive heat exposure, lower back screaming from the jolts of River Road, eyes stinging from the constant drip of sunscreen sweat, skin crimson from relentless summer sun, and hands cramped like rigor mortis from prolonged intense clutching of handlebars. With only about one third of the journey (45 miles) behind me, I was already beginning to question my ability to complete the trip. Could my body take this kind of heat and exertion for several more hours? I thought about all the times I was stricken with heat stroke as a kid, bed ridden, useless, and once or twice even dragged by my parents to mystics called “traiteurs” or Cajun faith healers. A typical visit to a traiteur included prayer, laying of hands, waving of arms, and some sort of concoction. I barely remember these visits, but one thing I do recall was that I never thought it was foolish. Prayers and potions are easy to dismiss as hocus-pocus, but if you could have seen the traiteur’s earnest demeanor, you would have believed too. I was fever-free the next day.

Then, I paused there in the shade, staring down the column of oaks, and poured cool water down my neck, arms, and ankles. I sat down for a few minutes under an oak and let the breeze and the dowsing do its thing. After a while, I was good as new! No cramps, no heat exhaustion, no stinging, only a newfound motivation to get back on the bike. So what healed me? Were these grounds blessed by over 150 years of devout occupants: first the Marists in 1864 then the Jesuits in 1931 to present? Did I simply need to catch my breath and cool down? Either way, I was no longer daydreaming about scaling the gate, sneaking into the Manresa House, and commandeering a bed for the night. I was once again focused on traveling up the river to Baton Rouge.

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A little further down the road, still in in Convent, I came across St. Michael’s Church and Lourdes Grotto. A marker near the church reads:

CONVENT
SETTLED IN 1722 – 1739 AS BARON
NOW PARISH SEAT ST. JAMES PARISH
ST. MICHAEL’S CHURCH 1809
SITE OF ST. MICHAEL’S CONVENT
ORDER OF THE SACRED HEART 1825 – 1932
SITE OF JEFFERSON COLLEGE 1831 – 1931

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Poché Plantation

This is the best shot I could manage of the Poché Plantation. The nearby historical marker states:

Judge Poché Plantation House. Felix Pierre Poché, Civil War diarist, Democratic Party leader, prominent jurist and one of the founders of American Bar Association, built this Victorian Renaissance Revival style plantation house with unusual front dormer c. 1870.

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As the marker says, this was once a great sugar plantation, washed away by Old Man River in 1940. For a site that was erased by nature, there's an irony in the plantation's original name Constancia, whose origin roughly means "constance". Then again, intact 200 year old structures are a bit hard to come by in America.

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St. Mary's Chapel

St. Mary’s Chapel. The historical marker states:

St. Mary’s Chapel. Built in 1875 by the Marist Fathers. Reestablished from original St. Marie du Fleuve located on White Hall Plantation. Statues transferred from rectory at Ancient Domain Plantation during elaborate blessing ceremony.

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The Sunshine Bridge, completed in 1963 and named by Louisiana governor Jimmy Davis who penned my grandmother's favorite song You Are My Sunshine. Click image for detailed panoramic view.

 

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From what I can gather, these are the ruins of Tezcuco Plantation. The main house burned to the ground in May of 2002.

The historical marker, not yet updated with that relatively new information states:

Tezcuco Plantation. Built in 1855 by Benjamin F. Tureaud, kinsman of Bringier family. Constructed of home-made red brick and Louisiana cypress. Purchased in 1888 by Dr. Julian T. Bringier. Retained by relatives until the 1940s.

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Burnside Water Tower and plant.

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Houmas House Plantation

Houmas House Plantation, located between Burnside and Darrow on River Road. The historical marker states:

Houmas House Plantation. Houmas Indian land grant sold to Conway and Latil in 1774. Sold to Revolutionary War hero Wade Hampton 1811. Greek Revival mansion built by John Smith Preston in 1840. Restored by Dr. George Crozat in 1940.

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Wood carving of Native American woman and her dog in the Houmas House Plantation lawn.

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Bocage Plantation

Bocage Plantation, just a few miles up the river from Houmas House. The Bocage looked deserted with a “for sale” sign out front. The historical marker states:

Built in 1801 by Marius Pons Bringier as wedding gift for daughter Fanny, who married Christophe Colomb, a French refugee. Remodeled by Architect James Dakin in 1837. Restored by Dr. & Mrs. E.G. Kohlsdorf 1941.

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I visited the website listed on the “for sale” sign. The asking price was five and a half million dollars, but according to the listing, it’s well worth the money:

This completely restored antebellum mansion offers elegance and an easy commute to both cities and their airports. 100+ acres, approx. 7,400 sq. ft. with 4 BR and 4 baths. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Built in 1801, remodeled in 1837 by famous architect James Dakin. Steeped in history with ties to Christopher Columbus, early colonization and the Louisiana Purchase. Well documented in many books and used as Hollywood set. The Plantation can be self-sustaining through tourism.

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Dock for the Carville - White Castle ferry. I stopped here for a break and a gander at the river.

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Leprosarium?!

This is the Indian Camp Plantation, also known as the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center Museum. These grounds were first used for hunting and fishing by Houmas Indians. The actual plantation was established in the 1850s, and then abandoned in 1894 when it then became a Leprosarium. The historical marker out front reads:

The plantation home, built in the 1850s, became the site of the Louisiana State Leprosarium in 1894. The U.S. Public Health Service acquired it in 1921. It is now known as the National Hansen’s Disease Center.

 

 

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Just past the Indian Camp Plantation I came to a stop at the sign above. In planning the trip, I promised myself that I was going to stay along the river, no matter what happened, but this rough shell road did not look promising with cattle guards, no visible end in sight, and the possibility of being stopped and searched. My choices were to either head into Elayn Hunt to brave the cows and unknown length of substandard roadway or to backtrack and detour off the river road as a shortcut around Elayn Hunt. I chose to stay on the river and pass through the correctional facility property, but I would not DARE pick any pecans. The sign reads:

POSTED
Elayn Hunt Correctional Center Property
NO HUNTING
NO FISHING
NO PECAN PICKING
All Personnel Entering Subject to Identification Inspection and Search
Violators Will Be Prosecuted

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Ah... the country.

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St. Gabriel Church

St. Gabriel Church marked mile 100 of my journey. Cyclists call this feat a “century”, and this in fact was my first. I took a break to get some food and called a few friends to rave about my accomplishment. Only 30 or so miles to go. The historical marker near the church reads:

St. Gabriel. 1761-1763. Church of the Iberville Coast built by Acadian exiles in 1769. It was located in 1773 on Spanish Manchac on a grant given by that government. German settlers came from Maryland in 1784.

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The Plaquemine to St. Gabriel ferry. Notice the ominous thunderheads in the background - finally a respite from the sun's rays.

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Cattle and egret race down the levee.

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Seeing this tiny sign brought me great joy.

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The Horace Wilkonson Bridge in Baton Rouge, LA.

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Me in front of the USS Kidd, a World War II destroyer name dafter Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who was killed aboard the USS Arizona in the attacks on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

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Statue and grave site of former Louisiana governor Huey P. Long.

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Louisiana State Capitol Building

After about 130 miles and over 14 hours of cycling, I reached my final destination just as the sun retreated, the Louisiana State Capitol. At 450 feet tall, with 34 stories, it is the tallest capitol building in the United States. There is a quote near the main entrance, “We have lived long but this is the noblest work of our whole lives… The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the earth,” said by Robert Livingston referencing the 1803 signing of the Louisiana Purchase. The capitol was the vision of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long, who was assassinated in this building. You can stand right where it happened, even put your fingers in the bullet holes of the marble walls. Long’s last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” Well Mr. Long, after a full day of cycling and more ideas for future trips than I know what to do with, I think I know what you mean.

 

Statistics generated by my Cat Eye VELO 8 bicycle computer:

Time Started: 5:40 AM CST
Place Started: “The Fly” in Audubon Park, New Orleans
Time Ended: 7:45 PM CST
Place Ended: State Capitol Building, Baton Rouge
Total Trip Distance: 130.44 miles
Average MPH (time on bike): 13.3 MPH
Average MPH (biking and rests/photos): 9.23 MPH
Maximum Speed: 22 MPH
Calories Burned: 3123.3
Time Pedaling: 9 hours 47 minutes
Total Time of Trip: 14 hours 5 minutes
Towns: 36+
Water Towers: 8
Plantation Sites: 10

 

Messages Left After Hurricane Katrina

by Taylor Lasseigne and Angela Driscoll / October – November 2005

At 7:00 AM on Monday, August 29, 2005, hurricane Katrina made landfall as a category 4 storm. Mississippi was hit directly by the strongest winds and a massive tidal surge. Louisiana received widespread wind damage also, but the problem here in New Orleans was rising flood water. Having fled my home uptown, I watched from afar (Tampa, FL) as the winds shifted. Water filled Lake Pontchatrain, saturated the canals bisecting New Orleans and Metairie, and then finally broke through the levee system and into our city. The bowl that is New Orleans filled up and sat stagnant for a month. This project was shot over a period of two months. The photos, taken by both my wife (Angela Driscoll) and I, depict a desperate attempt at communication.

Refrigerator Messages

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Other Messages

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Galveston, TX

by Parker Lasseigne / Summer 2005

Parker writes: Somewhere during the summer of 2005, I took a trip to Galveston Beach (that’s pre-Hurricane Rita Galveston) with my friend Jeremy Gooch. It was my first time there, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, except for our total lack of sunblock. I didn’t find it particularly amazing, but still a nice beach. We were only there for one day, a Saturday, so it was a bit crowded. Well I’m not sure how much more I could say, but enjoy what you see.

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Lake Verret – Louisiana

by Jason Hughes / May 2004

Lake Verret is a large freshwater lake which drains an extensive area of freshwater swamps. It is one of the most productive lakes in Louisiana. Aquatic organisms are abundant here and support recreational and commercial fisheries for large mouth bass and channel catfish.

– The Barataria Terrebone National Estuary Program website

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Falgout’s Alligator Farm

In the Fall of 2000, Ted Falgout allowed Angela and I to visit and photograph his alligator farm in Larose, LA. I grew up less than half a mile from the farm,  went to school with and was very good friends with Mr. Ted’s twin sons, yet I had never been inside those gator houses.  At first glance they  appear to be small sheds that have sunken into the ground, with only the roofs visible. Inside the buildings, alligators start as eggs and are raised until they are alligators of at least three and a half feet in length.

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Mr. Ted Falgout shows us around his alligator farm

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Alligator eggs from the incubator

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The “40- Acre Canal”

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A Boy and His Bike – Slice #1

After a month of hearing the clanking sounds from under my Cherokee’s hood, I finally decide to take the darn thing in to get looked at. I mean, it was to the point where I couldn’t park on anyone’s driveway due to the massive amounts of oil the beast would leave behind. I decided to take the truck to a mechanic, Randy Heer, out in Kenner. Kenner to me is the extremities of what I still barely consider New Orleans – suburbs.

So I get out there and talk to Randy for a while, and we come to the conclusion that I’ll leave my truck there for the weekend. I shake his hand and head out to my truck. Earlier that morning I had loaded the truck with all the essentials for getting back home from Kenner: water, camera, notebook, wallet, knife, various pens, backpack, three hubig’s pies (a locally produced pastry), my little black book (in case of an emergency), and last but not least, the bike.

The bike isn’t even mine. It belongs to my former roommate, Jason. He was kind enough to let me borrow the bike all through our days together on the University of New Orleans. I’m not sure, but I don’t think he has ever ridden it. What started out as a routine mechanic visit, ended up a Tour of New Orleans. The tour’s only racers were the sun and myself. It wasn’t even close.

Hi, my name is Taylor Lasseigne. This is the story of a boy and his bike.

 

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Junkyard behind Randy Heer’s body shop

The race begins at Randy Heer’s “Rocket Man Motors” body shop out in Kenner, Louisiana. I’d say that the temperature was at about 91 degrees with the heat/humidity factor putting it well over 96. The sun scorched overhead, as if to say, “Bring it on punk.” Randy’s closing of the large shop double doors was the starter pistol, and we were off!

I get on Veterans Memorial Blvd. and head East like I never have before. I felt strong, almost like a god at this point because I realized what lied ahead, and I knew there was no turning back. I was on a bike, and I was going home. I turn off of Veterans onto the airport road. Two planes planted their landing gear as I made my way South across the long stretch of road. I remember thinking here, “Wow, this is a long road!” Later I would find out that it was probably the shortest route I would take all day. At the end of the airport road, I reached Airline Hwy. I jumped on it and headed east for about half a mile, at which point I turned and headed South on Williams Blvd. After about a half-mile headed South, I reached the river, the Mississippi.

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East side of the New Orleans International Airport

I’d never seen the Mississippi here at Williams before. At this location, where Williams intersects Jefferson Hwy., there rests the most subtle of tourist attractions. It went by the name of Rivertown, and it consisted of children’s museums, the Saints Hall of Fame, and just a real humble atmosphere. It wasn’t bustling like the tourist attractions downtown. No, this place seemed to be quite the little secret. If you would keep driving South on Williams, you would run into a bronze statue of two fighters duking it out. This memorial was erected to honor the first heavyweight boxing match in America, which was apparently held somewhere near Rivertown. Just behind the memorial, the levee began, and there are American flags up to the top. On the other side of the levee is a wharf that jets out into the river. I was very surprised to see it open to the public. There is a barge tied up to the very end of the wharf, and it constantly creeks against the soft, wet wood.

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Saints Hall of Fame Museum

There was a nice family at the end of the wharf. They had traveled all the way from Hattiesburg and were on their way to the airport. I asked them, “What made ya’ll come out here? How did you know this place was even here?” The father answered me by saying, “Well, we were delayed in the airport, a long delay, and I asked around if there was anything nearby. This young fellow told us to come look at the river from this wharf.”

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Hattiesburg visits Old Man River

As I headed back to the bike, near the intersection, I noticed an old man sitting under a covered area. I decided to pay him a visit. I said to him, “Hi. I was wondering if you could tell me a little about this area.” He was real reluctant at first, but once he saw that I wasn’t soliciting, he talked my darn ear off. “Well what do you wanna know?” he said. “Don’t let all this hoop-la fool ya. This place didn’t always look like this you know…” He pointed to the buildings across the street. They were built in a style similar to something you would come across in a Mark Twain story. “Those buildings over there are really new you know. They just built to look old.”

He went on to tell me about the barber shop that closed down and the pizza joint that went out of business, and then a bus stopped near our covered seating. The doors of the bus swung open, allowing the folks to climb on. A computerized voice came from within the bus to say something like, “Jefferson Highway transit…..blah blah.” Aaron, that was the old man’s name, Aaron King…..he looked back at the bus and said, “Sheesh…they not always right, those computers on the busses. One time, I got on that bus right there, and it said, ‘David Drive’ but that’s not where we was, you know?”

 

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Mr. King from Rivertown

 

It was great talking to Mr. King. He helped me to get a real feel for where I was at that moment, in the city. His dialect and speech patterns were great. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to drop everything and do field work for the rest of your life.

So now I am on river road…actually, I am on the bike route along the levee. The levee, of course, follows the river, and so I am riding along the river. Whatever, anyway…there is so much to see from up there on the levee, and this isn’t even the most interresting part of river road. The best things to see are up near Baton Rouge, where river raod follows the paths of the plantation houses.

 

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Levee path

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A golf course near Hickory Ave

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Huey P. Long bridge, which crosses the Mississippi just before it turns and winds around uptown.

Here is another little nugget I found along river road, just a few blocks West of Causeway. Meet Penny. Penny is an aquestrian theropist. What does that mean? An aquestrian theropist is a horse that is trained to help autistic children and the like. By interacting with the animal, the children are supposed to stimulate parts of their minds that are otherwise unreachable. I didn’t even know this existed.

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Penny and her groomer

Every now and then, I would detour off of River Road. One of those detours landed me at the home of the Landrieu’s (parents of a friend). They were kind enough to fill my water bottle. Thanks ya’ll!

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The Landrieu’s House

Being so close to Jefferson, I decided to see what was a little north of the river. What I found was St. Agnes church and a really cool wall.

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St. Agnes Church

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Pickle’s Sports Bar

 

You talk to people in this city, and they talk back. They talk back big time. I got off of River Rd. at St. Charles so that I could stop at the ATM and get a bite to eat at Camillia Grill. In front of Camillia, this guy was sweeping. He was sweeping and hummung a tune, so I asked him, “Hey sir, what’s that you’re humming?” He says to me, ” Awe hey…those Saints are playing today aren’t they? Yea…you know those songs you hear on the radio? You know, those funny songs about the Saints? I’ve got one of those. I made it up.” Before I know it, he’s singing it to me:

“I don’t know but I been told. Saints gunna win that Superbowl. Now you can fit and you can fat, but you know you can’t go denying that.”

J.J. White, that was his name. He wanted to make it big. Later on, when I was in Camillia having my cheeseburger and fries, J.J. was singing his song again. The guys working behind the counter were egging him on, and he was eating it up. Camillia has never let me down.

 

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Mr. J.J. White at Camillia Grill

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The Camillia Grill (notice J.J. in the middle)

Ahh…Butler’s Black Pearl Lounge, know as Butler’s. This is my favorite bar in the city, hands down…no contest. The next closest in contention doesn’t even matter because Butler’s is just that cool. Let me give you an idea of what the inside is like. It’s dark, really dark. The only real lights are red, one of which highlights a beautiful print of Stevie Wonder. A couch, a bar, an Atairi, Shlitz flowing like the river…I mean really. River road more or less turns into Magazine St. here.

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Butler’s Black Pearl Lounge

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Pick up games in the neighborhood surrounding Butler’s.

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As I sped down Magazine St., through Audobon Park, I noticed a serious traffic flow problem. Then I saw the cause of the rubber-necking, a band of protesters. Now, I don’t have all the facts, but this was their case:They claimed that Mayor Morial was approaching the end of his term in office, and he was trying to pass a charter, which would keep him in office for another year.

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“WE WILL NEVER CHANGE THE CHARTER!”

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The most remarkable person on my route to mid-city was definately Debbie. It was dusk, and I hadn’t seen anything really great for a while. I was riding on Magazine St., and since I am on Magazine St. as much as I am anywhere else, it was hard to differentiate what was exceptional from what was every-day….but when I passed the entrance to the Splish Splash Washateria, and I caught a glimpse of Debbie, I knew why I had taken this trip.

Debbie was sitting at the counter, waiting for her clothes to dry. To make more of this dead time, she watched the local news on a T.V. that seemed to hang from the ceiling. Debbie was a slender woman in her forties. She had thick glasses and the attention span of a two year-old. What really drew me into that washateria, from the street mind you, was one of the most curious smiles I had ever seen. She smiled as though she wanted to understand what was funny, and what is more, she smiles like she is really close to the answer. This little lady made my day.

 

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I ran out of film here, about halfway up Magazine. From what I was told, the guy who made this car also makes Mardi Gras floats. The rest of the trip was kinda boring anyway. I went down Magazine until I got to the French Quater. I went through the French Quater and took Esplanade home – 5 hours!