Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On the Hunt for Dinosaurs...and a Hike at Lake Martin

T-Rex on display at the Lafayette Science Museum

Louisiana is not known for dinosaurs - that much I have learned through my Internet searching. Now Wyoming, Colorado and the Dakotas, they're a different story. Unfortunately the pleads of a three-year-old are not compelling enough to make me drive 26 hours to view a bunch of skeletons. Lucky for him, and the rest of our family, the Lafayette Science Museum is featuring the American Museum of Natural History's traveling "Dinosaurs" exhibit.

The drive is still a bit much to make without stopping, so we planned a layover at a friend's house in Baton Rouge. While in town, we couldn't pass up a glimpse of LSU's Mike the Tiger, and the trip to campus reminded us of old anthropology classes in the Howe Russell building and the fossils and rocks on display there.

LSU's allosaurus skeleton
It promised to be a great "starting off" site for our dinosaur adventures, but when we entered the front doors, Charles nearly squealed with delight at the sight before us. Although the child can't read, he instantly spouted out that this skeleton on display was "an allosaurus - a carnivore that walked on two feet and had three fingers, not two like T-Rex." (I must say, I will never understand his obsession with the fingers.) The discovery kept us occupied for quite some time, and Charles discussed the similarities and differences of dinosaurs in lengthy detail well into the night.

The next morning we moved on to Lafayette and headed into the heart of downtown. Our first stop was brunch at The French Press, where we gorged ourselves on the Cajun Benedict: toasted French bread, Hebert's boudin and two poached-medium eggs topped with chicken and andouille gumbo and fresh scallions. Shortly after, we waddled across the Parc Sans Souci toward the Lafayette Science Museum.

Lafayette Science Museum
While the planetarium is closed for a digital upgrade, the main attraction until March 11 is the "Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries" exhibit. The $5 tickets seemed like a bargain when we entered the far hall and came face to face with a giant T-Rex skeleton (complete with two fingers on each hand). He beckoned us inside to explore a life-sized steel and fiberglass apatosaurus, fossilized footprints and a diorama of eastern Asia as it looked 130 million years ago. After making two rounds through the displays, we grabbed some coloring sheets at the end and walked out the doors. I paused in confusion as we exited - what, no gift shop? Although a huge missed opportunity for the museum, it was a lifesaver for us, as gift shops almost always end in meltdowns.

Cypress trees at Lake Martin
The afternoon's adventures winded down with a short drive out into the countryside and a leisurely stroll through the Nature Conservancy's Cypress Island Preserve at Lake Martin. A loop boardwalk and levee trail offered prime glimpses into the moss-covered, cypress tupelo swamp that serves as a bird haven in late spring. Sunsets are reportedly divine at this picturesque spot, and the lake comes to life when thousands of herons, egrets and roseate spoonbills make this their home during nesting season. The area was scarcely occupied when we visited, though, and I left with the impression that we had found a jewel tucked away inside the state.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Secrets of New Orleans East: Bayou Sauvage & Historic Forts

Fort Pike on The Rigolets Pass

Beyond a line of Vietnamese stores and restaurants, Chef Menteur Highway journeys to the far edges of New Orleans, deep into the nation's largest urban National Wildlife Refuge. Just a short distance from our house, Bayou Sauvage NWR is a flashback to what much of this area used to look like - or perhaps more of what the natural landscape has become.

Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
As we took our time unfolding strollers and loading in kids and snacks, a rush of cars filed into the previously empty parking lot. Almost on cue, doors flew open and members of the Slidell Hiking Club emerged. While they milled around the display of posters describing the refuge, we scooted down the boardwalk out of sight.

There was no water standing under the wooden walkway, and 3-year-old Charles seemed thoroughly confused as to why we couldn't walk on the ground. We distracted him from his interrogation with a challenge to race. The end of the 2/3 mile trail came sooner than expected, and we unbuckled August and let him stretch his legs while we took in the expansive landscape in front of us.

The entire route had been enveloped with short vegetation and an occasional live oak. Here, at the end, though, short cypress knees and stubby tree trunks were all that remained from the saltwater damaged and logged forest. The landscape was strangely barren at first glance, but when we looked deeper, there were signs of life everywhere. Far in the distance, an island of live oak trees towered over the flat land, marking the spot where Tchefuncte Indians once built ancient shell middens.
Abandoned Fort Macomb

As the Slidell hikers approached, we finished off the loop and continued out Chef Menteur toward Fort Pike State Historic Site, pausing first to snap a few pictures of the abandoned 19th century Fort Macomb along the shores of Chef Menteur Pass. Overgrown and crumbling into the waters surrounding it, Fort Macomb appeared to be the forgotten stepchild of the two forts designed to protect Lake Pontchartrain. On the other hand, Fort Pike, which once guarded The Rigolets (French for "Little Ditch") pass to the lake, was staffed and open for viewing - and for shooting movies apparently. When we arrived this past weekend, the fort was still recovering from serving as the background for "G.I. Joe 2."

Great Horned Owl
While August and I paid the modest $4 entry fee, Paul and Charles began investigating the feathers and other bird parts littering the ground around a large oak tree. One quick glance up, and they were astonished to see a two-foot-tall great horned owl glaring down at them. He's a permanent fixture in the tree, and as we learned from the park guide, his mate spends her days under the nearby bridge. They meet up at night to hunt and eat.

Across the moat, we entered the cool, brick arches of Fort Pike. Completed in 1828, the fort served in various capacities in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War and the Civil War. Although aged from time and the elements, the fort was largely intact, complete with the interior citadel stronghold. Rooms are marked to denote their original purpose, such as a bakery, general store and officers' quarters, and strategically placed cannons look out over the waters beyond. I pushed the stroller up the rooftop ramp, and we carefully made our way around the top of the fortress, watching the pelicans gracefully fly past. I easily imagined myself transported back in time to live here on this serene site, and then I shuddered to realize the soldiers and their bustling activity that would have been happening all around me.

Inside Fort Pike

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Cajun Country: St. Martinville and Lake Fausse Pointe State Park

Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville

On the eastern edge of Lafayette, a circle of roads connects the historic town of St. Martinville with picturesque Lake Fausse Pointe. This was our weekend destination, and we launched the adventure from the Crawfish Capitol of the World - Breaux Bridge. As we passed under the bridge and over Bayou Teche, the kids jolted from their naps and began fidgeting with anticipation.

The sleepy downtown was filled with antique stores and the promise of amazing treasures, but one glance at the wild-eyed kiddos in back, and we continued south through the countryside to the equally charming town of St. Martinville. As Charles catapulted from the car, he was stopped in his tracks by our friend who had followed along on the trip. Shaking off his momentary confusion, he pulled her along in his quest for new discoveries in Louisiana's third oldest town.

St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville
The ample grounds of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church was the perfect location for running off some energy and adding to our rapidly growing collection of twigs. A man removing Christmas decorations drew us to the church's front doors, and we ducked under his ladder to enter "the Mother Church of the Acadians" - descendants of the French colonists forced out of Nova Scotia during the French and Indian War. The strong smell of incense lingered in the air inside, encircling us as we toured the gated pews and colorful patterns reflecting on the floor from the stained-glass windows.

Le Petit Paris Cafe
Before we could go any farther, we crossed the street for burgers and fries at Le Petit Paris Cafe. We were the only patrons in the quaint restaurant, which gave the kids free reign to squeal and play to their delight. The rest of the historic buildings are centered around the church, and we strolled past the Duchamp Opera House and La Maison Duchamp on our way to Bayou Teche and the Evangeline Oak. Immortalized by Longfellow's poem "Evangeline," the ancient oak is one of the most photographed spots in the state.

Cypress trees in Lake Fausse Pointe State Park
From St. Martinville, we headed out Catahoula Highway past an intriguing oak and pine alley to the levee road that leads to Lake Fausse Pointe State Park. It was here that, after reuniting with some good friends and tearing both their children and ours away from the playground, we set off to discover nature. At one time part of the Atchafalaya Basin, the 6,000-acre park features both boardwalk and canoe trails through the watery home of alligators and bald cypress trees. Although the sounds of our nine-person group tromping through the forest scared away any signs of life, we couldn't help but enjoy the fresh air and lovely scenery.

On the way out, we traveled the levee road back to I-10, where in the tiny town of Henderson, we enjoyed a seafood-filled dinner at Pat's Fisherman Wharf. It was dark when we drove away with full bellies and memories of another Louisiana adventure.

Playing on a natural see-saw at Lake Fausse Pointe