It’s out there, lapping at our feet, a hand’s-breath away. Magnificent and perhaps doomed, a siren calling with a melody that most of us fail to hear.
Louisiana’s still-massive cypress and tupelo forests, meandering bayous and sprawling wetlands, which once laced the city itself, are dwindling at an alarming rate. This integral part of the local landscape sits literally at our doorstep, yet remains lamentably off the radar for many whose lives and futures depend on it.
On a recent Saturday, Lost Lands Environmental Tours introduced me to this haunting and mesmerizing world.
Marie Gould and Lindsay Pick launched Lost Lands in March, with a fellowship from local social start-up accelerator Propeller, as a way to entertain and educate people about the vast natural refuges surrounding the city. They lead one-of-a-kind treks into the wilderness via kayak and boat, each tailored to the client, the season, the water level, the weather, and the current ecology of any of dozens of off-road estuaries they spend virtually every day exploring.
Our group of eight put kayaks into the water just off Highway 51, a 40-minute drive from the Garden District and a stone’s throw from Middendorf’s. We paddled under I-59, the loud whoosh of cars and trucks throbbing overhead, turned a corner, and, like the TV survivors of Lost or intrepid explorers of yore, fell off a precipice into another time.
Cypress knees lurched upward in Lilliputian forests that seemed to float on the inky, still water. Tiny white blossoms dotted the low brush beyond, and, as we passed, water from our paddle strokes slapped gently against the sloped and bladed trunks, anchored deep.
In a cypress-tupelo forest, water spreads in a thousand directions, as nature pushes it here and there. No manmade canal shorelines, ruler-straight, rein in its meanderings. Its palate of browns and greens and creams, rich earthy hues, changes like a kaleidoscope with the dappling of shade and sun.
Colors seem deeper here, the neon yellow of a kayak etched starkly against ochre water. Spanish moss drapes bare branches, and trees attest to the struggle for existence in a world where the weak don’t survive. The murky water is impenetrable, but you know it teams beneath with creatures both ancient and exotic.
At one point, a young alligator snapped its tail and rolled into the water, then dived under the kayaks like a porpoise at play. A goose-sized barn owl, perched in the fork of a gum tree, gazed unblinkingly as we passed. Later, we spied an equally dignified bald eagle scanning his domain from the top of a skeletal tree. Dragonflies and butterflies skimmed the water surface, and the stillness was broken only by the murmur of our conversation, small and hushed in an environment that inspires the reverence of a cathedral.
Then we turned again, to emerge suddenly and explosively into a seemingly endless expanse of sky and water: Lake Maurepas spread out before us. We bobbed in our kayaks, paddles across our laps, passing around sandwiches and apples, soaking it all in.
I was 40 minutes and a million miles from home. This kind of wilderness is as alien to urban dwellers as the craters of the moon. And yet Marie sat in a kayak next to me coordinating our pick-up on her cell phone.
That juxtaposition of wilderness refuge and civilization lies at the heart of what Lost Lands is all about.
“We want to make difference,” explained Bob Marshall, Marie’s husband and a veteran wetlands journalist, on the drive from town. “The idea is not to do a tour but to explain to educated people that this is a vital part of the state, and why it is so important that we have it stay in place.
“The best way to do that is to take people out and show them the beauty and the disaster. It’s an ‘ah’ moment for most.”
Each Lost Lands tour begins with a talk and Power Point presentation about wetlands issues.
“We are standing on some of the most fragile, endangered landscape in the western hemisphere,” Marshall said. He pointed to a map of Louisiana on his laptop screen. “Everything in red is land lost in the past 70 years.”
Animated graphics and maps demonstrate the scope of wetlands loss — a football field every hour — what we did wrong, and information on how to fix things. (See the accompanying story for more.)
Lost Lands destinations range from Barataria Bay to Blind River to Pilot Town, from the beauty of the swamp to the dreariness of manmade canals, from the verdant greenery of a natural riverside to the brown ugliness of one spoiled by dredging. Tours visit restoration projects, pelican and spoonbill nesting grounds, dolphin habitats and shrimping waters.
The only thing each journey has in common is that it’s not your usual swamp tour.
“For 30 bucks, you can sit in a boat and see an alligator,” Marshall says. “But that gator won’t have a home in 30 or 40 years. We try to show the beauty and the peril and the destruction. And the hope.”
Lost Lands Environmental Tours
To read about Lost Lands Tours and the other 2012-2013 fellows of the Propeller social venture accelerator program, click here.
This photo gallery of our wetlands tour is by University of New Orleans professor and avid kayaker John Hazlett:
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.