Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
Tuesday, November 25, 2003
CC's Journal 5

Sue with David Muth in a canal in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park.
His son Charlie is lying on the floor hiding from the cold.

At the southern end of highway 45 where it dangles its "toe" into the sinking marsh above Barataria Bay, lay the little town of Lafitte, Louisiana. Sue and I recently spent our anniversary there, while we waited on repairs to the houseboat. This small town, with an economy of commercial and sports fishing and tourism, sits among a variety of natural habitats. The ridge that supports the town is surrounded by bald cypress swamp, marsh, and large lakes with many bays toward the south.

Like the entire Louisiana coast, the Lafitte area is very rich in biotic resources. An ecosystem like this where two nearby general kinds of habitats intermingle-an "ecotone"-is usually very productive and ideal for animals with an ability to feed on both sides. The river otter, for instance, can seek prey in not only the swamp but also the marsh.

Some animals, like the brown shrimp, actually need different habitat to complete their life cycles. At some time or another these use the gulf, bays, and marsh for that purpose. Each female releases millions of eggs into the Gulf of Mexico, and by the time the maturing shrimp make their way into the marsh, many have been food for other predator animals. We'll talk more of that when we visit with biologists and shrimpers during the coming months.

The venture's goals included not only exploring anew natural wonders but also tapping Lafitte Nation Park personal and others for interesting information about wetland loss and restoration and wildlife peculiarities of the local area: our first stop was the Jean Lafitte Nature Study Park.

The one-mile scenic boardwalk there makes a circle through bald cypress swamp on 41 acres of wetland the town owns. It was conceived by the local garden club, the labor all donated by retired folks. Our late afternoon hike with the sun low and glowing made the Spanish moss clumps appear as golden Christmas lights. Dale Ross of the Victoria Inn Bed and Breakfast told us that there is a small egret rookery here that is active in early spring at about the time Iris bloom. We will be back to see both.

The next morning I got up early to take the sunrise over the marsh. Clouds covered the whole sky but were thinner on the eastern horizon so I could at least see the orange glow for a few moments. Then we headed to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, a few miles north, to meet David P. Muth, Chief of Planning and Resource Stewardship. He came here to work part time in 1980, two years after the park was created to help with text of French Quarter walking tours. In 1984 he became a ranger in the close by Barataria Unit. We were delighted that he had his fifth grade son Charlie with him. Sue knew that his perceptions and questions of the day would be invaluable for upcoming Marshmission "Coastal Classroom" web pages.

The four of us soon launched an 18-foot long Boston whaler with a 200 hp motor at nearby Twin Canals and ventured into the marsh. We asked David about those canals. He told us about the developer's pattern of: building a drainage canal or two, putting up a small levee, selling lots, and then when a hurricane comes get the Corps of Engineers to put up a much higher levee. This is the way a lot of South Louisiana wetlands changed into subdivisions, but luckily now this is a public park. Thus, this particular subdivision never got built.

He then took us west to the Segnette Canal near which his agency with help from LSU scientists restored two oil location canals to wetlands by pushing the spoil banks back into the canals. This project appears to have been a success because marsh plants are growing there once again.

We enjoyed seeing many birds with him, an avid bird watcher. About 250 black vultures, sometimes wrongly called "buzzards" roosted in trees along the canal: they were torpid and hardly moved in the cool morning as we passed. Despite many sightings of egrets, herons, and ibis, the real treat was an osprey flying by us with a specked trout in its talons.

David told us the marsh here, called "flotant," is made up of floating soil and vegetation so thick that it can support trees! This is a habitat I will photograph when we come back in the Wetland Wanderer. I asked him if he knew of anyone who actually sunk into a mass of flotant. He told of a girl doing field work for her Ph.D. who had sank almost up to her neck and was helped out only after she got her cell phone out of a waterproof bag to call for help.

There is a lot more to study here, we will be back soon.