Sunday, February 12, 2012

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge

Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
Bundled in puffy jackets and hoods, we fought the weekend's blustery weather and - in between Mardi Gras parades - carved out some time to discover another of Southeast Louisiana's (SELA) eight National Wildlife Refuges. Encompassing nearly 19,000 acres of Lake Pontchartrain's north shore, Big Branch Marsh NWR is another one of those remote gems, completely hidden within plain site of 1.2 million people.

Because of its close proximity to Big Branch Marsh, we began our journey at the Visitor Center for all eight of the SELA refuges. Just north of where Highways 434 and 190 intersect in Lacombe, this impressive complex was far beyond our expectations. A former Redemptorist seminary, the vast property retains the feel of a religious retreat with contemplative trails winding through sasanquas and camellias past a grotto, Bayou Lacombe and a cemetery for Redemptorist priests.

SELA Refuges Visitor's Center
Stepping inside the Visitor's Center, we instantly realized this cross-shaped building with vaulted ceilings was the former chapel. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had done an amazing job turning the space into a natural science museum, complete with displays highlighting the eight refuges, preserved animals, a video and an interactive cabin. The kids gawked at the black bear and alligator before scaling the ramp to the intriguing shack. Inside, a dark room hid various Louisiana wildlife. I handed Charles an available flashlight and watched with delight as he discovered owls, snakes, turtles, deer and a bobcat. Every time his light landed on one of the lifelike eyes, it triggered the hoots and growls of the featured animal.

One of the many camellias along the Camellia Trail
Outside, we followed the grotto and camellia trails past hundreds of blooming camellias, losing count as to the number of varieties of pinks, reds, whites, striped and polk-a-dot flowers. As Paul paused to read the names of the priests buried in the cemetery, the kids and I traveled the final camellia lane where we discovered the find of the century - at least to a three-year-old. A two-foot snakeskin completely intact appeared to be slithering across the path. It now holds a place on his dresser next to his cicada shells and caterpillar cocoon that hopefully will soon become a monarch butterfly.

The pine forest of Big Branch Marsh NWR
The sun was well on its way in its descent into the horizon, so we hurried back along Highway 190 to the Big Branch Marsh boardwalk and nature trail. A half-mile, self-guided tour immersed us into pine flatwoods that opened up to a lilly pad covered freshwater marsh. The wind was brutal in the open area, at one point launching an empty stroller into the water, but the serene views of saw grass and birds were well worth our endeavors. However, at the end of the boardwalk, we followed the limestone trail back to our car rather than continue along the 4-mile roundtrip Boy Scout Road Tour.

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