Canoe for the Coast!

“I loved it! I had a great time. How often do you get the chance to canoe through a cypress forest in the dark through a rainstorm?” Petra”Very coastal. It was cool to see up close the invasive species that cause problems. I didn’t think of tallow as evil before.” Leo “The trip bridged our activism work and the reality on the ground of the wetlands. Nature is beautiful. Coast!” TarikFor the past three months, the Gulf Restoration Network’s summer outreach campaign has been talking with residents across the Gulf about the critical need to engage in the movement to protect and restore the natural resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Our Gulf Defenders have so far had more than 42,000 one-on-one conversations and have recruited more than 2,000 new members whose voices add to the call for meaningful coastal protection and restoration!On August 15, the GRN rewarded its long-term advocates with a twilight canoe trip through the Manchac wetlands. The trip provided a first-hand connection between the activism work of our Gulf Defenders and the reality of coastal habitat dynamics.At 5 PM, the party met at the launch site, a small area of open water abutting ground-level Old U.S. Route 51 south of Ponchatoula. Interstate 55, elevated forty feet above the water, loomed nearby. Motorcycles, trucks, and cars droned on above, oblivious to the landscape below them.Byron and Tom our guides from Canoe and Trail Adventures had the canoes ready for departure. Byron gave an orientation using two maps, one of the Lake Ponchartrain estuary and another at smaller scale of Lake Manchac and surrounding wetlands. He explained how the Mississippi River delta had developed and changed over the last 6,000 years and how it continued to change today. The amount of salt in the water dramatically influences the kind of vegetation that can grow. For example, a large bed of Louisiana blue lilies that had been growing in the area died after being inundated by salty water pushed into the wetlands by Hurricane Gustav. They still have not regrown. Byron also described the route we would take on our trip, but we all knew that we would be lost immediately once on the water! We had no illusions. We would travel by canals dug into the wetlands to remove cypress trees for use in construction. Today these waterways allow saltwater to intrude further and further inland. The very waterways allowing us to see, feel and hear the wetlands contribute to their decline. We boarded the canoes without incident, an uncommon beginning to a canoe trip with several new paddlers. The party launched their boats one by one and began trying to steer, liberally ramming their fellows. The sturdy canoes absorbed the blows gracefully, as if Byron and Tom chose vessels knowing this game of bumper boats might occasionally happen. The party acquired its canoe legs shortly thereafter.We paddled between the wide concrete columns supporting the elevated expressway, never suspecting the raised deck would provide brief storm shelter hours later, and glided some more languidly than others into the wetlands. Cameras were out. The sun warmed our backs, and the unfamiliar sounds and smells of the wetlands welcomed us in.Byron signaled for us to gather by some cypress knees near the bank for our first discussion stop. Tom stood in his canoe, steadying himself with a hand on a particularly tall knee, and told us how the water level after Hurricane Katrina where we were floating would have been ten feet higher than it was today, a particularly sobering reminder of the power of storm surge and of why the protection afforded by coastal wetlands is so important to coastal communities. Byron described the non-native species that we could see all around us, including Chinese Tallow trees and water hyacinth. Tom sat back in his canoe, and we continued on.We moved off the canal and into an area of water moving through cypress trees. The water was clear and flowed quickly enough to pile up against tree trunks and uproot plants that we watched float by us as we paddled upstream. The cypress trees, like almost all cypress in coastal Louisiana, were little more than 100 years old, as the old-growth had been logged and taken out by canal for use in construction. This was all done before we knew that the value of coastal cypress forests for preventing storm surges, cleaning water, and providing critical coastal habitat was far greater than its value as lumber or garden mulch ever could be. Unfortunately, this knowledge hasn’t quite become a lesson yet, and we continue allowing logging companies to cut down coastal cypress. The GRN is fighting this through the Save Our Cypress Campaign.We passed a collapsed hunting lodge the Manchac Mansion and took turns yelling encouragement to paddlers whose canoes hung on barely submerged logs. The vegetation slowly changed as we continued paddling, and suddenly we emerged from the cypress trees into a narrow passage not more than 5 feet wide in many places winding through a dense growth of five foot tall bull’s tongue with brilliant green stems and wide leaves resembling their namesake. We progressed one-by-one, enjoying a solitude rarely found in the city and broken only by the occasional whistling duck or egret, until we stopped at a small pool to eat our snacks and watch the sun set over the wetlands.The sun faded to a pastel wash in the southern sky, and we turned around to retrace our route in the darkness. Instead of seeing the canoes stretched out in a line, we saw only the small green light atop a pole on Byron’s lead canoe surging forward and resting with the rhythm of an experienced solo canoe paddler. Nothing looked familiar until the tilted hulk of the decaying hunting lodge slipped into view. We thought again of the many ways we use wetlands. We came back onto the canal where Byron flashed a brilliant handheld spotlight to get our attention for another meeting. He told us that the eyes of alligators glow red at night, and he flashed the light out across the water. We passed the spotlight from canoe to canoe so each got a turn to see the wetland’s top predator at work, and we continued on.We became aware of sudden flashes in the sky. Lightning. The wind grew stronger in the treetops, and what had been a night filled with the sounds of frogs and insects suddenly sounded too much like an approaching storm. The lightning increased in frequency and brightness, and the wind came down from the trees onto the water where it pushed at our canoes. The rain caught us, falling in sheets. We paddled harder to push our way through the storm. Just before we turned out onto a stretch of open water leading to the elevated highway, Byron stopped us and gave a single instruction. “Stay to the far left!” he yelled over the sounds of the storm. With that he turned his canoe and set off, his small green light growing dim with distance.It became clear that his instruction was designed to shield us from the worst of the wind, but it still pushed the canoes with each gust, especially when we exited the open water back into a more narrow channel that funneled the wind toward us. The experienced paddlers struggled to maintain a straight line of travel. The new paddlers wandered from side to side in the canal, buffeted by the wind. Finally the elevated highway so near the launch and our final destination appeared in the distance, the lights of cars and trucks upon it streaking past above the treetops. The lead canoes reached the shelter provided by the elevated deck and waited there for the rest of the canoes to arrive.We then made the final push to the launch, beached our canoes on the gravel and stood in the rain wondering what had just happened.Sodden, sore and exhausted, the party congratulated one another on completing what had, as Byron said, ended a bit more excitingly than most trips do. The Gulf of Mexico’s coastal wetlands are some of the most biodiverse environments on earth and are priceless for their ability to protect the coast from storm surge, clean water running through them, and provide habitat for thousands of species of plants, animals and insects. We left the boat launch with strengthened conviction that wetlands must be saved and protected if the coast is to be healthy and habitable into the future.Coast!

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