After I had endured cold, damp weather for several weeks, it was great to meet C.C. and Sue in the wetlands on a beautiful sunny day. The Wetland Wanderer was anchored in a small finger canal off of the Intracoastal Waterway within the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge. It was established in 1996 and encompasses 4,212 acres of marshland located in Terrebonne Parish about five miles south of Houma. The refuge, only accessible by boat, is open year round, with seasonal restrictions in some of its areas.
C.C. picked me up at Cannon's Boat Landing in the small community of Waterproof on Bayou Black (along U.S. Hwy. 90 west). From the landing, we headed south down Minors Canal in our small boat. Before traveling very far, we went through a saltwater exclusion gate. Since this is an area of fresh marsh and swamp, this gate (and others as well) closes when needed to keep the saltwater out. Very soon, we popped out of this small canal into the Intracoastal Waterway right in the middle of a lot of waterborne traffic. I was shocked by the large sizes of some of the vessels and barges looming just ahead. As we bumped and splashed across their wakes, I realized how lucky we were to be able to easily zip around in the bayous and canals in our petit bateau. The Wetland Wanderer was a real beauty, sitting just off the Intracoastal Waterway at the end of one of the many small "finger" canals made by the oil companies. I stepped on board and immediately felt the winter blues melt away.
Behind and on both sides of the houseboat were artificial ridges that were spoil banks made when the canal was excavated. Willow trees, swamp red maples, and other vegetation have grown on these ridges, which provide a home for all kinds of wildlife. Because this is an area of fresh water marsh and cypress-tupelo swamp, one of the first things I noticed was how different the landscape was from the salt water areas southwest of here I had been in just a few weeks before. There was a lot more vegetation variety here - healthy cypress, red swamp maple, live oak, and hackberry trees growing on natural ridges with water on either side.
Most of the surrounding trees were still dormant and seemed lifeless. The vivid red leaves from the red swamp maples that were just springing to life contrasted dramatically with the lavender-gray trees that surrounded them. I quickly set up my easel on the top of the boat and went to work painting. At about 4 p.m., C.C., Sue, and I jumped back into the bateau and set out to explore some of the nearby natural ridges to find the perfect spot to photograph the sunset.
There is abundant wildlife in the refuge. Great excitement ensued when we encountered a large flock of feeding and dabbling White Ibis. The setting sun turned the nearby cypress trees into a golden orange color, and the gleaming Ibis were an esthetically pleasing complement to the view. As our small boat drifted closer to them, they took off over the water and our boat. It was quite a sight, and our camera shutters were kept busy. The thrill of encountering the unsuspecting Ibis was immediately followed by a "Technicolor" sunset - what a way to end a perfect day!