Atchafalaya Bay
Sunday, April 4, 2004
CC's Journal 14

I felt like Christopher Columbus when I recently stepped onto a new island in Atchafalaya Bay. That it was, "brand new" was confirmed by my seeing a sediment relocating dredge leaving the scene. I noticed in the sand tracks of a nice sized buck, those of a couple of doe, and then nearby a set of hoof prints that must have belonged to a newly born deer, for they were quite small. There were also coyote and otter paw prints. Across the island birds of many different species convened, including 150 White Pelicans, a few White Ibis, a group of gulls, and a flight of sandpipers. The cliché "Build it and they will come" has been validated once again.

Right next to a deer track, I found a tiny pioneer plant sprig emerging from the muddy sand. Near the edge of the island was a large patch of alligator weed that had drifted ashore and taken root. Next fall this area will be covered with grass, and the following spring willows will shoot up. In a couple of years this island will be solidly vegetated. It will become not only a home for much wildlife but also a gulf wave buffer for the marsh to the north.

Atchafalaya Bay is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak coastal situation in south Louisiana. The massive amount of sediment that comes down its river is building land in the bay's shallow waters. (Let me note here that the 24 square miles of land Louisiana is losing yearly is a "net" loss, i.e., it includes this gain). Ol' Man River pours waters into the Atchafalaya Basin that are loaded with sediment from the entire Mississippi River drainage region. Unlike the Mississippi's sediment, which is channeled by high levees to the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, that of the Atchafalaya River is free to spread out widely across the upper basin, and some reaches Atchafalaya Bay - making new wildlife habitat over a very large area.

In the 1970's I came out here often. It was a lot different back then, for there were only a very few islands in the bay's ~ 120 square miles of near-shore shallow water. One day I saw a Forster's Tern nesting on a giant bald cypress log that had floated down the Atchafalaya River and ran aground in the bay. I anchored my bateau about 30 yards away and knelt down in the water behind my boat that was used as a "blind." I set my tripod on the sandy bottom and mounted a 500 mm lens. While getting a few shots of the tern, I felt an eerie nudge behind me - a small shark had bumped my leg. He was swimming with a school of from 15 to 20 three-foot sharks. Admittedly they were a bit scary but not big enough to hurt me.

As incredible as it might seem, sharks can occur in a freshwater bay. Biologist have told me they captured "marine" stingrays and bull sharks above Simmesport - that's over 120 "river" miles from the Gulf. How quickly wildlife of all sorts would prosper if it had a suitable habitat. Atchafalaya Bay is a jewel of the Louisiana coastal "crown."