At the Marsh Mission project outset, while planning my schedule of tentative field trips for this July and August, I deliberately included a lot of studio painting time for those two months in order to ideally minimize the possibility of my exposure to the notoriously brutal, Louisiana outdoor summer heat. However, when in early July Jim Bailey offered to have his land manager, Donnie Coots, take me into some areas that are now part of the recently created Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge, located below the Town of Franklin, I "tuned out" the possibility of an afternoon high heat index and jumped at the chance!
This refuge, established in 2001 in St. Mary Parish, encompasses a little over 9,000 acres of marsh and bottomland hardwood wetlands. Bayous and canals of unbelievable beauty weave through the entire area. The main reason for the Federal Government's creating this refuge was to preserve a habitat area for the Louisiana Black Bear, a threatened subspecies of the American Black Bear. The Bayou Teche National Wildlife Refuge is the only National Wildlife Refuge with the specific mission of managing a bear population. I was told that the bears are shy and are usually visibly active only at dawn and dusk. Harassing or disturbing the refuge bears is legally forbidden, and a violation carries a criminal penalty of up to a $50,000 fine and one year of imprisonment. Although I didn't spot any bears on our outing, Donnie assured me that if I came back, he would take us where we would see individual bears. I just may have to take him up on that offer.
The refuge also provides habitat for fish, reptiles (mostly alligators), and waterfowl. It is open year-round from dawn to dusk. It can be entered by boat (as we did) or by vehicle from the Alice C Road below Garden City.
We launched his boat below Franklin from the Fairfax Foster Bailey Memorial Boat Launch and headed generally southwest down the Franklin Canal. Donnie told my husband, our son, and me that this canal was built in 1940 to connect Franklin with the Intracoastal Waterway. One thing that highly amazed me was the extraordinarily great number of pipe lines crossing that canal. It seemed to me that every few feet we passed had pipeline marker signage. At first I thought I could count them, but I soon gave up. There were just too many.
After a two and one half mile run down the Franklin Canal, we turned west and entered the Hanson Canal through a locked water gate. This part of the canal traverses protected reserve and ideally can only be explored by paddlers. Thankfully, Donnie had permission to enter it and travel very slowly with use of a motor. Once inside the gate we experienced an unusual visual treat. I don't think I've ever seen in the wetlands such a variety of trees and plants in one area. There were identifiable: oak, cypress, fig, muscadine, hackberry, wax myrtle, chinaberry, palmetto, pecan, trumpet vine, bay laurel, yaupon, elm, magnolia, willow, swamp maple, taro, gum, black cherry, and mimosa. There were no doubt "oodles" more of plant species that we couldn't identify. Nevertheless, we traveled lazily through Hanson Canal in a generally northwesterly direction for a little over three miles and also ventured off the main channel to explore some of the smaller side canals. Except for having to swat pesky horseflies, it was a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that many of those lush and scenic bayou views that I saw will make their way into my future paintings.