Monday, March 26, 2012

Return to Grand Isle

Fishing Pier at Grand Isle State Park


It's amazing how much can change in a year. Last April, we visited Grand Isle for the annual Migratory Bird Festival, an event the whole island embraces as residents open their yards to birding enthusiasts. The island was bustling with activity, but some of the key attractions - such as the state park's beaches - were closed due to tar balls lingering on the sand after the BP Oil Spill. Fast forward to 2012 and the sand is cleaner than ever and children were even playing in the ocean waters.

"Shrimp Boy" Charlie
It's a hefty drive for us - two and a half hours from New Orleans - so we scooted out of the house at 6:30 a.m. to make it in plenty of time for our 9:30 a.m. chartered fishing appointment. Poor August had to hang back with the grandparents, but Charles was giddy with thoughts of his day in the limelight. On the boat, our host Pat Bellanger took us to some of the best fishing spots around the island. It was exhilarating scaling the waves in the Gulf while porpoises played hide and seek around us.

Our guide offered us prime views of Fort Livingston, where Charles' imagination was captured with thoughts of buried pirate treasure. I initially wondered if the trip might be too much for the four year old, but he reveled in being our "shrimp boy" - providing bait whenever needed - and gained a new best friend in the striped sheephead we reeled in. (I didn't have the heart to tell him that the fish he was singing to "sleep" was soon going to be chopped up for our dinner.)

Pelican Rookery at Queen Bess Island
Before heading back to dock, we were treated to a spin around Queen Bess Island, better known to the locals as Bird Island. It was here, amidst hundreds of nesting brown pelicans, that we caught site of hot pink wings flapping in the wind and I saw my first of many roseate spoonbills. These amazingly colorful birds did their best to hide within the recesses of the island, while the pelicans made a great showing of flying about, boldly flaunting their triumph over the oil that once threatened to destroy them and their habitat. It was a place I never knew existed, and its brilliance made me question what else I have missed seeing in the world.

Back on land, a voracious appetite had overtaken us, and we tried the poboys (our favorite traveling food) at the Starfish Restaurant. They loaded us up with seafood, and we left with full bellies and a renewed urge to see more of the island.

Grand Isle State Park
The day was getting warmer when we entered Grand Isle State Park, and we tossed on some shorts and kicked off our shoes to take a walk. We made our way down the long stretch of sand toward the Gulf and dipped our feet in the lukewarm waters while Charles attempted to keep his beach ball from blowing away in the wind. A particularly strong gust sent the ball all the way back toward the grassy sand dunes, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck as it landed right beside a patch of moon snails waiting to be scooped up.

Feeling sun kissed, we next drove to the shady hiking trail maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Walking along the Lafitte Woods Nature Preserve, we scoped out the path that would soon be teeming with amateur and professional birders searching out the rarest migrating birds during the Migratory Bird Festival April 20-22.

View from Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge
As the sun settled into the evening sky, we made one last stop on our way out at Elmer's Island Wildlife Refuge. A long, bumpy road snakes through the marsh, taking you from Highway 1 to the sand-covered island. For those with four-wheel drive, you can take your car out onto the sand and park right up at the water's edge. Even in a Jeep, though, we chose to play it safe and stop at the island's entrance.  We took one last leisurely walk, marveling at the man-of-wars washed up on shore, before snapping  a few parting pictures of pelicans flying over the sunset.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Zebras and Lizards at the Global Wildlife Center and Bogue Chitto State Park

Exotic animals at the Global Wildlife Center
Beyond Lake Pontchartrain and Covington, out past sprawling plant nurseries, lies the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. We made the trek to the far reaches of the Northshore to see the more than 4,000 exotic animals that reside here at this 900-acre wildlife preserve.

Wagon tour of the Center
As we drove alongside the property, our anticipation grew as we saw the animals frolicking in the fields before us. When our car turned in the main gate and crossed over the cattle guard, Charles thrust my iphone back into my hands to focus his full attention out the window. Dozens of wild animals walked slowly by, creatures we'd never seen before - not even in storybooks.

We approached the Visitor's Center, thinking we'd buy tickets for the 1 p.m. tour and eat our PB&J sandwiches by the koi pond while we waited. It turned out the noon tour leaves at a quarter after, though, so we dragged the kids out of the gift shop and boarded the last in a string of covered wagons. Thinking we were on a train, Charles bounced about shouting "All Aboard!" while August clung to me in fear of all the new people around him.

As the "train" lurched forward, though, and we entered the animals' realm, they both were overcome with pure and utter joy. Armed with our bucket of feed, we were shoveling cups of food into the animals' mouths, while August was literally squealing with delight. If I hadn't held him back, I'm almost positive the child would have jumped right in the middle of those four-legged grazers.

Bactrian Camel
The numbers were astonishing, and the varieties of colors and types purely amazing. From the African kudus with their spiraled antlers and the two-humped bactrian camels to the ostrich-like rheas and the frisky pere david deer, we fed, pet and giggled at them all. While the giraffes were standoffish, the zebras were overjoyed with us and begged for our attention. The gentle llamas ate feed right out of my hand, while other animals ran away with the cups they were supposed to be eating out of.

A strong wind blew throughout the thrilling ride, and by the last ten minutes of the hour and a half tour, the boys were (for once in their lives) exhausted. That in itself is a rare feat to accomplish. We topped the trip off by feeding the giant koi and catfish living in the picnic area's pond while scarfing down our sandwiches.

Bogue Chitto River
It was a successful day, and we drove away with full intentions to head back home in triumph. But Charles gave his best puppy-dog look, and with his newly purchased elephant in hand, pleaded for us to continue the adventure. Paul and I are both suckers for that, and after a quick glance at the map, decided to swing past the state's newest state park - Bogue Chitto. We drove the park's loop, taking in the scenic views of the gorge and the Bogue Chitto River while letting the car's movements lull August through an afternoon nap.

As we turned the last curve to exit the park, the toddler awakened and we used the opportunity to hike the gorge trail that had been beckoning to us since we first saw it. A path of leaves and pine needles led the way through the woods to stairs leading deep within the gorge. At the bottom, a boardwalk snaked around through a much wetter landscape, and lizards fled our every step. With lightning speed, Charles actually caught one and vowed to never let it go. Fortunately, the animal was resourceful and squirmed his way free. As the tears came rushing down, we decided the outing was over, and headed home to recoup and plan for the next adventure.

Stairway into the state park's gorge