Close Encounters

From The amazing wildlife and coastal marshes of southwest Louisiana’s Creole Nature Trail are recovering following yet another damaging storm season.
By Elaine Warner

It must have seemed to southwestern Louisianans like “déjà vu all over again,” to quote Yogi Berra. In September, Hurricane Ike hit the upper Texas Gulf Coast impacting Lake Charles and surrounding communities, many still in recovery from Hurricane Rita, the devastating 2005 storm.

Rockets

In Title: A beautiful sunrise over one of the coastal marshes of the Creole Nature Trail. Brenda LaFleur photo

Above: It is estimated that there are more alligators than people in Cameron Parish. www.monsoursphotography.com photo

Below: An angler surf fishing along the Louisiana Gulf Coast. www.monsoursphotography.com photo

Coast

One of the biggest Hurricane Ike casualties was the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road.

Of the nation’s 125 nationally recognized Scenic Byways, the Creole Nature Trail is one of the elite 27 designated as an All-American Road, so-named because of unique features and elements of national significance. These roads are destinations unto themselves. Tough requirements, but ones easily met by the 180-mile trail that offers travelers amazing wildlife, coastal marshes and Cajun culture, as well as archaeological and historical elements.

A territory in peril

This road travels some of America’s most fragile ecosystems. According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, the state lost approximately 24 square miles of wetlands per year between 1990 and 2000. Estimates in 2004 projected a 1,000-square-mile loss by 2050. That was before Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. With those storms, Louisiana lost another 217 square miles of marsh. No damage figures for Hurricane Ike have been released yet.

“Louisiana’s coastal wetlands along the Creole Nature Trail are a national treasure. It’s unfortunate that such resources are constantly threatened not only by man-made adaptations but also overall environmental changes,” said Monte Hurley, chairman of the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. “Most people are not aware of the impact that wetlands have on their daily lives. Louisiana’s wetlands represent an estimated annual economic value in excess of $40 billion and contribute either directly or indirectly to the lives of everyone in the United States.”

Traveling the trail

The Creole Nature Trail is the ideal place to learn about America’s largest expanse of wetlands. The circular trail traverses several ecosystems embracing fresh and brackish waters. The area is a critical habitat for wildlife, serving not only waterfowl but hosting a large portion of the marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. The marshlands also serve as a buffer, mitigating storm surges and protecting oil and gas infrastructure. Indeed, there are 93 pipelines that run through the parishes where the Creole Nature Trail is located.

My most recent visit to the Creole Nature Trail came in December. The road had just opened, having been closed since Ike’s 12-foot storm surge swept over it. In many places, the shoulders of the road were peeled up in big chunks, like a spatula lifting a row of cut brownies out of a pan. The marshes, flooded by salty water, were brown. Only one of the four refuges was open. Now all are open, though some areas are still inaccessible.

The Creole Nature Trail remains a worthy destination. As spring rains flush the marshes, reducing the salinity, vegetation should return. And surprisingly, fishing is excellent.

“Fishing has been spectacular since Ike,” said Capt. Sammie Faulk, an expert on the trail and a local hunting and fishing guide. “You can catch redfish, flounder, speckled trout, croaker or black drum anywhere in the whole Calcasieu estuary system.”

There are numerous opportunities along the trail for fishing or crabbing. You must have a fishing license but Louisiana makes getting one very easy. With a credit card and a cell phone, you can get one immediately by calling (888) 765-2602. Get a license before your trip by applying online. A basic fishing license is $9.50 and a saltwater license is an additional $5.50. Visit www.wlf.louisiana.gov to apply or for more details.

Birding is a major draw for the drive. With a prime position on the Central and Mississippi flyways, avian visitors may include half of all the land birds that breed in eastern North America. The wildlife refuges host thousands of ducks, geese, herons, egrets and other wading birds, which can often be spotted from the road.

But the ruler of the region has to be the alligator. It’s estimated that there are more alligators than people in Cameron Parish. Sunny, warm days are your best bet for spotting one of these critters.

My home base for exploring the trail was Lake Charles, the largest city in the area. Traveling the trail is a good day trip from here. Heading south from Sulphur on Louisiana Highway 27, my companions and I crossed the tall Ellender Bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway, the 2,500-mile body of water that stretches from Brownsville, Texas to Trenton, N.J. At the base of the bridge is Intracoastal Park, a small but well-kept area that offers RV and picnic sites, a playground and public restrooms with showers. Bank fishing is popular here, and a boat launch is handy for boaters.

We stopped in Hackberry at Brown’s Grocery and Market (620 Main St.) for picnic lunches. Brown’s sandwiches are almost an art form–fresh rolls stacked with plenty of meat and cheese–ample for the heartiest appetite. We also picked up a platter with a couple of local favorites: boudin, a mixture of pork, rice and spices in a sausage casing; boudin balls, making a killer dish even more deliciously deadly by taking the mixture, breading it and deep-frying it; jambalaya; and chunks of pecan sweet rolls for dessert.

Hackberry is home to a number of charter boats and commercial fishing and shrimping vessels. This is a great place to buy fresh seafood, so bring a cooler.

Approximately eight miles south of Hackberry on Highway 27, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is a major feature on the route with a 1.5-mile wetland walkway allowing visitors close-up views of birds and other marsh animals. Swamp rabbits, muskrat, nutria and water snakes share the habitat with song birds, wading birds and waterfowl.

At Holly Beach, a spur of the trail goes east along the beach. The town, hit hard by Rita, had been rebuilding when Ike blew through. Only a couple of well-elevated houses survived. To date, all the schools in Cameron Parish have reopened, and South Cameron Memorial Hospital is completely up and running. The resilient residents of the Holly Beach area also are in the midst of rebuilding their homes.

Also along the spur is the Peveto Migratory Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary. Hard-hit by Ike, it is, nonetheless, open. Although salt-seared vegetation is visible, this is one of only a few patches of coastal woodlands, and it should still be a good place to spot migratory birds this spring.

As you drive back to the main route, watch for slight elevations with gnarled oak trees. These are cheniers, ancient remains of coastal ridges, found in only four places in the world. An eastern spur of the trail passes the town of Grand Chenier.

North of Creole, the salt marshes transition into prairie. Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is the headquarters for all four of the southwest Louisiana refuges and home to a new visitor center, which is under construction. If all goes well, the center will be open by June. Completed exhibits will cover migration, local heritage and special features of each of the area refuges. An elevated walkway takes visitors over the marsh and a gazebo provides a great place for picnics.

The Creole Nature Trail continues its recovery but still is an impressive drive. The best way to help is to visit, patronize local businesses and spread the word that this special area needs lots of support. After all, this All-American Road belongs to all of us.

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.

 

Springtime Celebrations

There is a festival going on nearly every weekend in southwest Louisiana with more than 75 annual celebrations, and some of the spring highlights follow. For more ideas, click on www.visitlakecharles.org.

• The Black Heritage Festival will be held March 6–7 at the Lake Charles Civic Center. The festival brings together the cultures of Africa and southwest Louisiana in a fusion of culture, music, food and entertainment. Call (337) 488-0567 for details, or visit www.bhflc.org.

• The Celtic Nations Heritage Festival will be March 27–29 at the Lake Charles Civic Center. Enjoy concerts, workshops, an Irish tea room, highland games, puppet shows, art, Celtic dancers, sheep herding and more. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children. Call (337) 905-2358 or visit www.celticnationsfestival.org.

• The Southwest Louisiana Garden Festival will be March 28–29 at Burton Coliseum near the campus of McNeese State University in Lake Charles. In its 10th year, the festival will feature gardening experts, guest speakers, a flower show and plant sale. Admission is $2 per person. Call (337) 475-8812 or visit www.gardenfest.org.

• The Louisiana Railroad Days Festival will be held on April 9–11 at the DeQuincy Railroad Museum. This year marks the 26th anniversary of the festival, which will feature a talent show, pageant, food booths, carnival rides, parades, arts and crafts and a model train show. Call (337) 786-8241.

• Contraband Days will be April 28–May 10 in Lake Charles, centered around the Lake Charles Civic Center. The pirate-themed fest has carnival rides, contests, food, concerts and more. Gate day passes are $3 per person, and children under 6 are admitted free. Call (337) 436-5508 or visit www.contrabanddays.com.

Mar/Apr 2009 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For updates on work as it progresses on the trail, visit www.creolenaturetrail.org.

For visitor information, contact the Lake Charles Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-456-SWLA (800-456-7952), or www.visitlakecharles.org.

For fishing licenses, call the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at (888) 765-2602 or click on www.wlf.state.la.us.

To visit the Creole Nature Trail and Lake Charles, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. List of offices to serve you.

Order free information about Louisiana through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.

 


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