Sitting on a barstool on Frenchmen Street, it might seem implausible wilderness could be less than 5 miles away, but it’s true.
Bayou Bienvenue, a freshwater cypress swamp that forms the habitat for many varieties of birds, fish, wild pigs and alligators, lies just past the St. Claude art corridor, over the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Four years ago, Sara Howard and Sonny Averett, kayak enthusiasts and founders of Kayak-iti-yat, began running guided tours across the Wetland Triangle into the bayou to educate locals and tourists about Louisiana’s natural environment and to provide a new take on the city from an alligator’s point of view.
Older Lower Ninth Ward residents recall a thick forest teaming with wildlife.
“When I was a boy, you didn’t need a paddle for the boat. The trees were so close together, you could pull yourself by grabbing a tree,” said John Taylor, wetland specialist for the Lower Ninth Ward’s Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development.
The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) Canal, which was built as a shortcut to the Gulf, introduced salt water into the bayou, killing the cypress and tupelo trees. Now that MRGO has been closed off, several nonprofits and scores of volunteers have been trying to replant the native cypress trees and marsh grasses.
The bayou needs sediment, Averett said. Although the water now has an acceptable level of salt, the sediment shows a higher concentrations. For new cypress trees to survive, fresh sediment should be trucked in.
On our paddle, we saw floating islands made from recycled plastic bottles, alligators, white pelicans, egrets, ibis with curved beaks and a rare bald eagle. Egrets were an endangered species in the Downton Abbey era when their snowy white plumes adorned ladies’ hats, Sara said. Now, they are flourishing in Bayou Bienvenue.
After a tranquil paddle in the bayou, we wended our way back to shore dodging cypress stumps, paddling against a cool, autumn breeze. But I can’t think of a better way to come down from the frenzy of holiday parties and shopping, just drifting in the silence of the bayou.
Kayak-Iti-Yat runs kayak tours on Bayou St. John as well as Bayou Bienvenue, year-round. Learn more about Kayak-Iti-Yats’ tours here.