Old Pearl River
Crawford Landing Road to Indian Village Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
A very short segment of the river that marks the natural border between southeastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi that is developed but still offers diversions into side channels, sloughs and alluring bayous.
April 3, 2014
Pearl River: ht/ft: 15.3 | cfs: n/a
Water levels are almost always reliable.
Crawford Landing Road, (boat launch/parking lot for Honey Island Swamp tours) Slidell, Louisiana
Indian Village Road
Time: Put in at 2:00p. Out at 4:30p.
Total Time: 2h 30m
Miles Paddled: 7.75
Wildlife: Several prothonotary warblers, lots of turtles, pileated woodpeckers, two water snakes, one diamond back (!), a great blue heron, a yellow-crowned night heron and a little blue heron (yes, there is such a thing!), several ospreys, many turkey vultures and yes, alligators (!!) – babies, one juvenile and one mama!
Time worth driving to: 1 hour
An anomaly insofar as upper Midwest paddling goes, I was in New Orleans for a week and took a daytrip diversion outside of the city to paddle in bayous and cypress swamps, a fantasy of mine for years. The trouble was finding an outfitter and a location that matched my one-day window of time and paddling parameters. That and, well, there’s water everywhere in southeastern Louisiana, I mean everywhere.
The options are overwhelming, especially for a wonder-eyed outsider like myself. North, east, south, west, there are beguiling bayous at all cardinal directions. But I wanted to go north, mainly because that’s where the Abita Brewing Company is located, in the town of Abita Springs (what could be more natural for a Wisconsinite whilst in Louisiana, staying in New Orleans to boot, than to combine a brewery with kayaking? It’s possible that, if there is one single place – at least in the United States if not the world at large – that can rival Wisconsin in consuming copious amounts of alcohol, it’s New Orleans).
That, and I wanted to drive across Lake Pontchartrain on the 24-mile-long bridge that spans the whole huge lake (until three years ago, when China built something longer, it had been the longest bridge on the planet. Thanks a lot China!)
Trouble was, I really wanted to paddle in bayous and cypress swamps, less so a flowing river. Ordinarily, I’d feel the exact opposite but I’m not ordinarily in New Orleans. There are no exact bayous and such in Abita Springs, so in the end, I opted for finding something nearby but still some 25 miles east of the brewery. In retrospect, I’d do something differently but I’ll get to that in a bit. The river was high and above flood stage so I thought it prudent, being my first time in this kind of setting, not to get too bogged down in the swamp, so to speak. There are gators and snakes and I’m just a Yankee after all.
What we liked:
Bayous, baby, bayous! It’s funny too, because a bayou by definition simply means slow-moving or stagnant water, which normally wouldn’t interest me whatsoever. But down in the Gulf states, the flora and fauna in these backwaters are exotically mesmerizing! I felt equally enthralled by the trees as much as the myriad wildlife (it also felt pretty awesome to wear shorts and a t-shirt on the third day of April when it got to 81 degrees).
There’s something absolutely enchanting about such landscapes. They’re just so lush and thick, mysterious, beguiling and hold just the right amount of danger to keep it all interesting. It’s a positively haunting experience, the deeper you enter it. Even the shoreline development captured my attention, as the magnolia and oak trees just make you gawk and take your breath away. And the fishing/crabbing houses on the river itself were fascinating emblems of the unique culture down there that makes its living on the water.
I feel obliged to mention the wildlife. First off, yes, I did see a couple gators, including some newly hatched babies, called a “clutch” (and no, I wasn’t worried about being attacked. First off, it’s way too early in the year and the water is still too cold to be worrying about gators; you’re lucky to encounter even an adolescent one. Secondly, they’re skittish by nature and generally wish to avoid you. That said, it’s wise to keep your hands and feet out of the water!).
But I saw what I naively didn’t even know existed in the first place: the little blue heron, the diminutive of the great blue heron. Plus, the flamboyantly named yellow-crowned night heron. Lastly, there were the snakes. Lots of them. Most were harmless water snakes but toward the end of the trip I saw a gigantic diamond back, at least 6’ long and poisonous as all hell. A little freaky, I won’t deny but pretty hardcore.
Quick shout-out to Massey’s Outfitters. For a $25/day rental, these folks were awesome. And extra special thanks to the Honey Island Swamp Tour folks for letting me use their boat launch, answering my many questions and generously giving me lots of pointers and heads-up about things to look for and be aware of in the backwaters.
What we didn’t like:
There were fewer bald cypress trees in this area than I’d hoped for. I’m shamelessly in love with this tree (which, incidentally, is directly related to the sequoia tree out west, another favorite of mine). They can be as old as 3,000 years! The one I did see was kind of hidden in the background and I was told it was at least 700 years old! Just as attractive are the dead ones and the husk stumps of them. This trip didn’t offer much of that – most of the trees in the bayou were actually gum trees, still cool but no cypress tree.
The river itself, at least this stretch, was fairly unremarkable. Due to it being above flood stage, you could paddle pretty much anywhere you fancied, but then again you don’t want to paddle too close to the low-hanging trees where there’ll be snakes – don’t want no snakes, even non-lethal ones, falling onto my crotch and slithering down my legs, thank you very much!
Otherwise, it was just big and brown with a lot of debris coursing quickly downstream. There was a fair amount of shoreline houses, which certainly compromised the sense of escapism, however, it’s perhaps ironic or at least counter-intuitive, that it was common in these environments where the odds of spotting alligators was the best. I’d say that’s plenty worth putting up with.
If we did this trip again:
Needless to say, this was a one-time deal. That said, I would recommend putting in way further upstream, say the Lock No. One north of Pearl River. From there to the Crawford Landing would be about 15 river-miles, not counting bayou excursions. A full day’s paddle to be sure but with sandy beaches and far less development.
Or put in further upstream in the Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge to really experience the bayou wild. Or stay closer to New Orleans and explore the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Or again still, if you’re just interested in a river paddle, both the Tchefuncte and Abita rivers look delightful.
In the spirit of lagniappe, I’ve mapped out an Abita River and bike path shuttle trip with a couple great spots to sample local beer on the same map for Old Pearl River. What’s a lagniappe? Surely, you jest. Lagniappe is a custom or way of being, really. At its most basic, it’s adding a little some’um-some’um. It’s the mint left on your pillow after the maid’s fixed the bed. It’s the six-pack you throw into the selling price of something. It’s the bonus disc of oddities and outtakes on a band’s limited edition new album release. It’s not unlike a paddling website that gives away all this stuff for free!