History Lesson at Port Hudson

History Lesson at Port Hudson

On previous trips to St. Francisville, we always head straight for the historic town, walking the shaded main streets and shopping at Grandmother’s Buttons before setting off to tour a nearby plantation. Although we see the sign for Port Hudson State Historic Site as we pass, we never stop, always having a slight aversion to taking toddlers to a battle site. On our most recent trip, though, we had a change of heart and decided it was finally time for us to veer off the road and check it out.

Port Hudson State Historic Site

As is most often the case, we were pleasantly surprised by our decision. A model state facility, Port Hudson was immaculately kept up, with 6 miles of wipe-open trails for exploring and a child-friendly ranger who welcomed the kids and their insanity with open arms. An informative exhibit inside the museum offered miniature models of soldiers and horses that captured the kids’ imaginations, while the sad details of the actual battle were left to those old enough to read.

Golden-silk spider

The longest siege in American military history took place at Port Hudson, where for 48 days 6,800 Confederate soldiers held off 30,000 Union troops. There were thousands of casualties before the Confederates finally surrendered after hearing that Vicksburg had surrendered. The site is also important as being the first battle in which African American troops from Louisiana were allowed to participate in the battle, fighting for the Union army against the Confederates. Port Hudson later became a recruiting center for African-American troops.

After brushing up on our history and watching the ranger let the kids try on a canteen and practice moving a small cannon, we began our journey on the trails outside. It first led us through an open field to original cannons used in the Civil War battle here. Then, looping around, it immersed us into a shady forest with giant spiders weaving webs right over our heads and small bluffs offering elevation changes not often seen in Louisiana.

Fort Babcock

At Fort Desperate, an elevated boardwalk led us over the earthen hills built by the soldiers, and signs spoke of sharpshooters watching Union soldiers as they dug trenches to get closer to their enemy. We then crossed Foster Creek and found Fort Babcock, another series of earthen hills left behind to nature and the tiny frogs and lizards jumping and scurrying about through the fallen leaves. While the kids tested their bug-catching skills, we tried to imagine thousands of young soldiers hiding here in these woods 150 years ago.

Train car on display in town

The day was still early when we left Port Hudson, so we headed toward St. Francisville to pick up a bite to eat at Magnolia Cafe. On a whim, we decided to drive to the edge of town to view the Mississippi River and were surprised to find the road leading nearly straight up to the water’s edge. From here, we turned back and stopped off to investigate an old train car left behind from the West Feliciana Railroad. The kids climbed over every inch of it before we herded them back into the car to find out if the road was open to Cat Island.

Drive to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

As we crossed the low-lying bridge over a local river, we were excited to realize that the road was not flooded as it had been on previous visits. A family jumped across rocks in the scenic river while we headed out into the country, past several sightings of grazing deer to the dirt road that leads to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge. A lack of signage and our own poor guessing at directions helped us “get lost in Louisiana” yet again before we finally found our way to the destination. Inside the refuge, we parked at the trailhead for the old cypress trees and walked the short distance to the viewing platform for the National Champion Bald Cypress – an enormous, ancient tree dominating the old growth forest around it. We took our time admiring this grandfather of trees, which spends half of every year swimming in the floodwaters of the Mississippi River. It’s a sight to see and the perfect ending to our day of adventure.

National Champion Bald Cypress
Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

Cooling off in Bogue Chitto State Park

Bogue Chitto River

On an unbelievably hot Louisiana summer day, we set out to cool our toes in the waters on the Bogue Chitto River. The state park by the same name is one of Louisiana’s newest state parks, located near Franklinton.

Loblolly pine tree

The drive there on LA-25 north takes you past some impressive nurseries. However, once you veer off the main road, the landscape felt foreign to us – as if we were suddenly in another state. It appeared to be land that had been clear cut and then let alone to grow back wild, but all the vegetation was still short enough to give the impression of a wide open space. It’s hard to describe, but I had the same feeling as when we drove through the lava fields in Oregon – a bit disoriented.

But then we reached the entrance to the state park, and everything changed again. We drove inside to find a lush, fragrant pine forest, with bluffs and elevation changes similar to Tunica Hills near St. Francisville. Of course, by the time we reached our destination, it was lunch, so we headed straight for the picnic tables. A covered table lent some relief from the glaring sun, and while we shoved bites of sandwiches in the kids’ mouths, they chased grasshoppers and dragonflies with giddy abandonment.

Boardwalk trail within the gorge

We vowed to hold out as long as possible before the kids’ drenched themselves in the water, so we started with the hiking trail along the bluff’s ledge. The shaded path was a good 10 degrees cooler than the picnic area and led to stairs that descended deep within the gorge to a lower boardwalk trail. The area down below is known as Fricke’s Cave, although it bears no resemblance to a real cave. It’s unique features led National Geographic to do a story on the area years ago. A collection of Native American arrow heads found in Fricke’s Cave is displayed in the Visitor’s Center.

Fricke’s Cave

From here we tried another trail around one of the park’s 11 fishing lakes, where we learned a little about nature from the labeled trees. We also discovered a handful of fossils–tiny imprints of long-ago plants and creatures–in the river rocks scattered about. Not to forget, this was also our first sighting of a velvet ant, which I later learned is not really an ant at all but rather a type of wasp. Who knew?!

Bogue Chitto River

By this point, the kids had begged long enough for the water, so we hopped in the car and drove down to the river’s access point. The main parking area was full, so we backtracked to the picnic area and set out from there–following the path through the woods, across the open beach that glared like the Sahara, and finally running full speed into the picturesque river. Several people were milling about on inner tubes, slowly floating downstream while basking–or should I say baking–in the sun. (In case you’re wondering, there is an outfitter in the park that rents the inner tubes.) We stayed long enough for the fish to start nibbling at our toes, and then trecked our way back across the desert for our final destination–the jewel of a water playground.

Not only was there a giant tube slide that dumped the children right into a a long tub of water, but there were streams of water shooting out of the ground and falling out of the sky. While the kids thoroughly drenched themselves, I bought snoballs at the nearby stand as a special treat on our hot summer adventure.
 

A park native
Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Tickfaw State Park and Lake Maurepas’ Northshore

Bridge over the Tickfaw River

On a whim, we recently decided to take a little drive and check out Tickfaw State Park in Springfield, not far from Ponchatoula and Hammond. It was a scenic journey, north on I-55 through that swampy strip of land sectioning off Lake Maurepas from Lake Pontchartrain. Near Ponchatoula, we headed west into the country, first past some surprisingly large, elegant homes that slowly tapered down to more rustic, rural houses. We passed a few notable spots along the way, including a sign about an old Spanish fort and Springfield’s role in the West Florida Revolution.

Cypress/tupelo swamp behind the Nature Center

Once we arrived at Tickfaw State Park, we headed straight to the Nature Center, which the website says houses an 800-gallon aquarium filled with fish from the Tickfaw River. Unfortunately, a posted sign said the Center was closed on Sundays and Mondays, which I assume is the sad result of state park budget cuts. After a quick round of pouting, we perked ourselves up with a picnic lunch and then set off to discover the boardwalk trail leading out from behind the building.

The route began in a quiet cypress and tupelo swamp, where cypress knees extended high above the murky water and skinks were prolific on the boardwalk’s railings. After a short walk, we emerged on dry land in a more traditional forest of hardwood trees. The kids carefully selected walking sticks from the broken branches scattered about, and then we made our way back to the Nature Center where we peaked in the back window and saw the aquarium.

Five-lined skink with blue tail

Farther back in the park, another trail led us along a boardwalk to a bridge over the Tickfaw River. I thought those striped, blue-tailed skinks had been abundant before, but here they seemed to have taken over the place. Our five-year-old could hardly walk two feet before crouching down to sneak up on the next one. The river was muddy and lazy, winding through a serene stand of trees. We ventured along its banks, spotting countless frogs and water turtles and watching for signs of fish before backtracking to the elevated trail.

Our last stop was the playground, a destination our youngest begs for daily and one we always have to save until the end–or else we’ll never make it anyplace else! So while the kids climbed and slid their way up and over the equipment, we rested on the nearby benches. I was nearly certain the splash park would be next up on the list, but a sudden shower had us instead running for the shelter of the car.

Old Hardhide in Ponchatoula

To kill time, we drove the streets back toward the entrance, veering off here and there to see what we had missed along the way. This is how we found ourselves at a small pond, walking the circular trail around its perimeter and watching with wide-eyed wonder as the resident alligator swam along beside us.

With alligators on the mind, we had to stop on our way out in Ponchatoula, where Old Hardhide lives in his cage in the middle of downtown. He was relaxing on the side of his pond, silently snoozing while we snapped photos of the kids squatting only a foot away on the opposite side of his chainlink fence. Next door, the old town depot from 1894 beckoned us inside with the promise of arts, crafts and antiques. The kids talked us into buying them toy alligator head grabbers in return for them smiling for a photo in front of the old locomotive across the street.

Middendorf’s Restaurant

For the day’s finale, we pulled off the interstate in Manchac for some of Middendorf’s famous thin-fried fish. We ate our fill and followed it up with homemade ice cream before taking our leftover bread outdoors to feed the seagulls. While we stood there on the small pier with birds circling our heads, a train barreled past, flying across its narrow bridge over Lake Maurepas. By now, the kids had discovered the giant sand pit behind the restaurant and set up shop next to the palm trees, building tiny villages with toy trucks and buckets. I’ll only say it was “difficult” to persuade them to leave. Yet, as the sun set over the tiny fishing village, reflecting off the water and highlighting the floating lily pads, we all smiled at the beauty of this place that was so perfectly Louisiana.

Manchac
Charming Madisonville

Charming Madisonville

The tiny town of Madisonville perched its stilted houses and businesses along the banks of the Tchefuncte River, which flows south and widens as it enters Lake Pontchartrain. Countless days of rain had prompted us to visit this historic maritime community, whose past has been interwoven with water since the earliest days of settlement around 1800.

Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum

We escaped the day’s remaining drizzle inside the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, where a 3 p.m. arrival gave us an hour before closing to tour the exhibits. The kids were a whirlwind, as usual, absorbing every creature, boat and picture at lightning speed. My four-year-old had found three alligators, a squirrel and a bobcat before the rest of us even made it past the visitor’s desk.

A dimly lit wooden walkway set the scene for a ride on an early steamboat, and upon entering the boat, we emerged into a theater showing the history of the Tchefuncte River. From model boats and lighthouses to a replica Civil War submarine and river pilot boat, every inch of the museum was chock full of interesting artifacts and details about the state’s long and unique reliance on water.

Tchefuncte Lighthouse

Also under the Maritime Museum’s management is the elegant, black and white Tchefuncte Lighthouse. Although accessible only by boat, a bumpy drive to the end of the road placed us in perfect viewing distance. Originally built in 1837, the lighthouse was nearly a casualty of the Civil War but was rebuilt shortly after and still flashes its light today.

From the bottommost tip of the road, we traveled north to the opposite end of town, snapping photos of the tranquil river and historic courthouse (now a museum) and branch library. The riverfront restaurants were hopping with the exiting church crowd, and we picked up some quick seafood-to-go at Morton’s. 

Otis House at Fairview-Riverside State Park

Next up was Fairview-Riverside State Park, where we ate in a covered picnic pavilion while gazing at the lovely 19th century Otis House (open for tours Wednesday through Sunday). We walked the perimeter of the house toward the ponds and river behind it. The rain-soaked ground squelched beneath out feet as tiny frogs jumped ahead of our every step. Needless to say, the bug catcher was put to good use, and we had a fantastic time chasing the amphibians until a snake slithered across my path.

That was our cue to move on, and we drove past the campsites to the boardwalk swamp and river trails. Our arrival was greeted by those strangely large “Devil’s Horses” (palm-sized, black grasshoppers) sitting motionless in the grass, on the trees and along the boardwalk. A game ensued of my two-year-old spotting the critters, pointing one tiny finger at them and yelling his brother’s name until his older sibling made his rounds and fearlessly plopped them in the bug catcher.

As we left with our car full of critters, we stopped for a final glimpse of the setting sun casting a reddish glow on the cypress trees lining the water.

Sunset over the Tchefuncte River at Fairview-Riverside State Park

 

Return to Grand Isle

Fishing Pier at Grand Isle State Park

It’s amazing how much can change in a year. Last April, we visited Grand Isle for the annual Migratory Bird Festival, an event the whole island embraces as residents open their yards to birding enthusiasts. The island was bustling with activity, but some of the key attractions – such as the state park’s beaches – were closed due to tar balls lingering on the sand after the BP Oil Spill. Fast forward to 2012 and the sand is cleaner than ever and children were even playing in the ocean waters.

“Shrimp Boy” Charlie

It’s a hefty drive for us – two and a half hours from New Orleans – so we scooted out of the house at 6:30 a.m. to make it in plenty of time for our 9:30 a.m. chartered fishing appointment. Poor August had to hang back with the grandparents, but Charles was giddy with thoughts of his day in the limelight. On the boat, our host Pat Bellanger took us to some of the best fishing spots around the island. It was exhilarating scaling the waves in the Gulf while porpoises played hide and seek around us.

Our guide offered us prime views of Fort Livingston, where Charles’ imagination was captured with thoughts of buried pirate treasure. I initially wondered if the trip might be too much for the four year old, but he reveled in being our “shrimp boy” – providing bait whenever needed – and gained a new best friend in the striped sheephead we reeled in. (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the fish he was singing to “sleep” was soon going to be chopped up for our dinner.)

Pelican Rookery at Queen Bess Island

Before heading back to dock, we were treated to a spin around Queen Bess Island, better known to the locals as Bird Island. It was here, amidst hundreds of nesting brown pelicans, that we caught site of hot pink wings flapping in the wind and I saw my first of many roseate spoonbills. These amazingly colorful birds did their best to hide within the recesses of the island, while the pelicans made a great showing of flying about, boldly flaunting their triumph over the oil that once threatened to destroy them and their habitat. It was a place I never knew existed, and its brilliance made me question what else I have missed seeing in the world.

Back on land, a voracious appetite had overtaken us, and we tried the poboys (our favorite traveling food) at the Starfish Restaurant. They loaded us up with seafood, and we left with full bellies and a renewed urge to see more of the island.

Grand Isle State Park

The day was getting warmer when we entered Grand Isle State Park, and we tossed on some shorts and kicked off our shoes to take a walk. We made our way down the long stretch of sand toward the Gulf and dipped our feet in the lukewarm waters while Charles attempted to keep his beach ball from blowing away in the wind. A particularly strong gust sent the ball all the way back toward the grassy sand dunes, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck as it landed right beside a patch of moon snails waiting to be scooped up.

Feeling sun kissed, we next drove to the shady hiking trail maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Walking along the Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve, we scoped out the path that would soon be teeming with amateur and professional birders searching out the rarest migrating birds during the Migratory Bird Festival April 20-22.

View from Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge

As the sun settled into the evening sky, we made one last stop on our way out at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge. A long, bumpy road snakes through the marsh, taking you from Highway 1 to the sand-covered island. For those with four-wheel drive, you can take your car out onto the sand and park right up at the water’s edge. Even in a Jeep, though, we chose to play it safe and stop at the island’s entrance.  We took one last leisurely walk, marveling at the man-of-wars washed up on shore, before snapping  a few parting pictures of pelicans flying over the sunset.

Zebras and Lizards at the Global Wildlife Center and Bogue Chitto State Park

Exotic animals at the Global Wildlife Center

Beyond Lake Pontchartrain and Covington, out past sprawling plant nurseries, lies the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. We made the trek to the far reaches of the Northshore to see the more than 4,000 exotic animals that reside here at this 900-acre wildlife preserve.

Wagon tour of the Center

As we drove alongside the property, our anticipation grew as we saw the animals frolicking in the fields before us. When our car turned in the main gate and crossed over the cattle guard, Charles thrust my iphone back into my hands to focus his full attention out the window. Dozens of wild animals walked slowly by, creatures we’d never seen before – not even in storybooks.

We approached the Visitor’s Center, thinking we’d buy tickets for the 1 p.m. tour and eat our PB&J sandwiches by the koi pond while we waited. It turned out the noon tour leaves at a quarter after, though, so we dragged the kids out of the gift shop and boarded the last in a string of covered wagons. Thinking we were on a train, Charles bounced about shouting “All Aboard!” while August clung to me in fear of all the new people around him.

As the “train” lurched forward, though, and we entered the animals’ realm, they both were overcome with pure and utter joy. Armed with our bucket of feed, we were shoveling cups of food into the animals’ mouths, while August was literally squealing with delight. If I hadn’t held him back, I’m almost positive the child would have jumped right in the middle of those four-legged grazers.

Bactrian Camel

The numbers were astonishing, and the varieties of colors and types purely amazing. From the African kudus with their spiraled antlers and the two-humped bactrian camels to the ostrich-like rheas and the frisky pere david deer, we fed, pet and giggled at them all. While the giraffes were standoffish, the zebras were overjoyed with us and begged for our attention. The gentle llamas ate feed right out of my hand, while other animals ran away with the cups they were supposed to be eating out of.

A strong wind blew throughout the thrilling ride, and by the last ten minutes of the hour and a half tour, the boys were (for once in their lives) exhausted. That in itself is a rare feat to accomplish. We topped the trip off by feeding the giant koi and catfish living in the picnic area’s pond while scarfing down our sandwiches.

Bogue Chitto River

It was a successful day, and we drove away with full intentions to head back home in triumph. But Charles gave his best puppy-dog look, and with his newly purchased elephant in hand, pleaded for us to continue the adventure. Paul and I are both suckers for that, and after a quick glance at the map, decided to swing past the state’s newest state park – Bogue Chitto. We drove the park’s loop, taking in the scenic views of the gorge and the Bogue Chitto River while letting the car’s movements lull August through an afternoon nap.

As we turned the last curve to exit the park, the toddler awakened and we used the opportunity to hike the gorge trail that had been beckoning to us since we first saw it. A path of leaves and pine needles led the way through the woods to stairs leading deep within the gorge. At the bottom, a boardwalk snaked around through a much wetter landscape, and lizards fled our every step. With lightning speed, Charles actually caught one and vowed to never let it go. Fortunately, the animal was resourceful and squirmed his way free. As the tears came rushing down, we decided the outing was over, and headed home to recoup and plan for the next adventure.

Stairway into the state park’s gorge