Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Exploring the Gulf Coast: Dauphin Island, Alabama

Dauphin Island's white sand beaches

A short road trip out of state landed us in Alabama's Dauphin Island, a barrier island at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Vacation hotspot for locals more so than tourists, you won't find any shopping outlets or putt putt golf here, but rather quiet neighborhoods overlooking the bay and expansive, white-sand beaches. Unless, of course, you visit during the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, the largest fishing tournament in the world.

The island's residential side
Lucky enough to have family to stay with on the island, we arrived late in the evening to put us in reach of an early morning beach walk. We were the only car parked at the public beach, and a cold breeze followed us as we walked along barefoot across the ultra-fine sand toward the Gulf's lapping waves. I remember years ago watching the waters beneath the fishing pier and elevated picnic areas. Today, more sand has drifted to the west end of the island, making the beach wider than ever and the pier jut out over a sea of sand.

Trails through Shell Mound Park
I gathered small seashells while Charles chased the seagulls and Paul photographed the rather large mounds of what appeared to be jellyfish. We were able to enjoy the views for half an hour before August began whimpering in the cold, and we sought shelter in a more contained part of the island. Shell Mound Park marks the site of prehistoric mounds built by early Native Americans. Today, only a few oyster shells poking up through the path belie that this hilly nature walk is an important archaeological site.

With hiking on our mind, we ventured farther down the island to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary. Miles of walking trails cut across 164 acres of land protecting one of the best places in the country to view migrating birds. A boardwalk leads past pines and live oaks to an overlook at Galliard Lake. Continuing on, you eventually emerge back at the beach's sand dunes.

Historic Fort Gaines
On the far east side of the 14-mile-long island stands Fort Gaines, built in 1821 and integral in the Battle of New Orleans, the fort is famous for Admiral Farragut's command "Damn the torpedoes - full speed ahead!" It's a well-preserved fortification and reenactments are held here throughout the year. Other highlights of the east side are the Estuarium at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and a ferry across the Bay to Historic Fort Morgan. There's never enough time to discover it all, though, and our weekend ended all too quickly.

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.