Exploring Black Bayou
article by Mary Napoli | illustration by Austin Bantel
“Hey there, you must be Ann,” I said to the small, lovely woman standing in front of the Acadian style building on the grounds of the Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Ann Smith smiled back at me. She is Vice President of the “Friends of Black Bayou” and was kind enough to offer to take me exploring one sunny Saturday morning in March. Ann has been a volunteer at the Refuge for several years, and I was excited to spend the day soaking up her knowledge of the area.
Black Bayou consists of 4,500 acres of nature at its most fascinating. The Refuge includes a 1,700 acre lake and wetlands brimming with wildlife of all kinds. In 1997, the area became an official National Refuge with the ingenuity and selfless patronage of local volunteers who saw the value in adopting and protecting the region. The group established a Visitor’s Center, which was originally a planter’s home in the 1880’s, to provide information for the public, as well as interactive displays and a gift shop. The Conservation Learning Center opened in 2005 and offers an impressive classroom and exhibits of live, native wildlife, such as snakes, small alligators, turtles, and freshwater fish. In addition to its natural beauty, the Refuge offers a birdwatching/photography blind, a 1,200 foot wildlife observation pier, a mile-long nature trail and boardwalk through the wetlands, an observation deck, and arboretum, amphitheater, wildflower and prairie area with concrete walkways, and opportunities to fish and hunt. The “Friends of Black Bayou” also offer events and celebrations that the public is invited to participate in several times a year.
I knew Black Bayou existed and had been before, but had not made the time to experience it fully. In fact, the last time I set foot on the refuge, I had come with my brothers and their families. I was seven months pregnant with my first child, and my full, round belly could have very well scared away animals in every direction in fear that I might eat them. This trip, I appeared much less threatening and was in a much better physical state to explore the Refuge.
I had never met Ann before, but I already knew we had several things in common. We had both spent countless hours teaching English to university students, both had two children, and we shared a passion for the arts and the outdoors. Ann was my kind of girl, and she was ready for an adventure.
With the generous help of another “Friend,” Bob Eisenstadt, Ann and I soon had on our canoe in the water. Bob remained on the shore as we set forth. The early spring weather was perfect, and the warming sun rays promised that the wildlife would likely be out and about.
Even on the edge of the lake, there was already so much to see. Waterfowl were abundant, and Ann expertly pointed out each species and informed me of their eccentricities. Gorgeous bald cypress trees appeared in every direction with their limbs draped in soft Spanish Moss. After only a minute or two of paddling, Ann pointed out a mid-sized alligator, around nine feet long, that was resting in the thick vegetation near the bank. My eyes had to search for him for a moment, but there he was-his eyes just above the surface and his long, bumpy tail visible above the water line. I had never seen an alligator this close before, and I wondered if we were a strange sight to him.
Today, Ann promised to take me to view the bald eagle’s nest, and I was excited to observe it. I paddled in the front of the canoe, and Ann acted as guide in the back. She explained to me how the lake was divided up into different sections and that they all connected to form the large Refuge. It was still early, and the sun cast its glow on the foliage and dark water all around us. As I listened to Ann, I took in the beauty of the lake. These surroundings appear familiar to those of us who live in Louisiana, but to people from outside of the South, it must look like another world. Soon, we were in an area so thick with cypress and tupelo gum trees, we had to maneuver the canoe around them slowly to avoid hitting them. At any point, I could reach out and touch the rough bark and tendrils of moss that hung like curtains from the branches above our heads. My fingers grazed the pointed, knobby knees of the cypress trees, protruding from the water that surrounded us. The knees are actually a root system that help to keep the trees grounded in the marshy waters. This grove of trees was like a magical gateway to another area of the lake, where the gentle breeze and the songs of winged residents provided a earthy soundtrack.
“There is the nest,” said Ann.
It was unmistakable and a sight to behold. I paddled toward it with my mouth gaping. Perched next to it was a huge, majestic bald eagle.
“The nest itself is six to seven feet wide,” explained Ann.
The giant nest was carefully crafted, and my guide noted that the birds continually add to it add repair any damage that may come its way. Last year, the nest was full of eggs and had somehow made it through the bitter winter. The adult eagle perched on a branch overseeing its home and looked out over the bayou ready for what may come its way.
Gazing up at the eagle’s nest, we began to talk and lost all track of time. We shared stories of common experiences, overcoming adversity, and said things that we normally don’t talk about with someone we just met. It may have been the wide open sky above, or that only the majestic eagles were around to hear us, but that raw, tender part our hearts were wide open that day. Like the eagles, we had both weathered some significant storms in our lifetimes and managed to make it through, with ourselves and our young stronger for the experience.
As talked, we listened to the eagle call out to the bayou. It wasn’t a song, but more of a confident declaration of its presence. We noticed a small, dark head peeking up from the depth of the nest. Slowly, the bird revealed itself. It was much smaller than the adult and covered in black feathers. Ann explained that it was a juvenile eagle that would not develop the white feathers on its head that would signify its maturity until later. This bird, we would learn several days later, was one of the baby eagles born in the previous season. Suddenly, we heard another cry similar to the one the adult had made. In the distance, another adult bald eagle was approaching. The one on the tree took flight, and made its way toward its mate. The two flew away together with their impressive wings open wide and began soaring in circles around each other as they traveled farther away. Watching this, we reasoned that they must have been calling out to each other and communicating in their own special way.
“That must be its mate,” Ann said. “They must be going to hunt together.”
Ann recalled watching the mother eagle bringing food to the nest last season and feeding her babies. The smaller eagle made its way to the edge of the nest and appeared to look in the direction that the older eagles had gone. We wondered if it was minding the nest or waiting for a meal–the wildlife version of room service.
It was a simple scene, but incredible nonetheless. These beautiful creatures must tend to their homes and make the necessary efforts to ensure their survival as any species, and we are no different. Watching them, I felt a part of their world. As complicated as life gets, the simple things never change. We often forget that we are as much creatures of this world as much as the animals. Our homes and our children are our top priorities, whether we have feathers, scales, or smartphones and bank accounts. Our homes aren’t as far apart as they may seem, and our basic needs are no different from each other’s. There is nothing like immersing yourself in nature to quiet the mind and remember what truly matters.
It was over an hour before we looked at the clock and realized that it was time to head back to the dock and to our lives outside of the murky water. Grateful for the experience, we turned our canoe around and began to paddle back.
As we moved the boat forward, I held on to every serene image of the lake and wished that my mind could take photographs. I felt thankful to be a Louisiana girl and proud that my hometown had such an incredibly gorgeous landscape that we all have access to. In my heart, I felt admiration for and gratitude to the “Friends” of this breathtaking place, the diverse group of people who care for Black Bayou and give selflessly of themselves to not only ensure its safety but to encourage others to experience the beauty it has to offer. Places like Black Bayou aren’t something we should take for granted. They are blessings that we should recognize, enjoy, and glorify our creator for providing. They are a special part of our natural habitat as residents of North Louisiana.
I was lost in thought when I heard Ann softly whisper, “Whoa!” I turned my head toward the bank just in time to see an enormous, dark, scaly tail slap the water with a large splash and sink below the surface. It was a giant alligator, and we were only about 20 feet from it.
“Keep paddling,” said Ann calmly. “He was sunning himself, and we got too close and disturbed him. We should keep moving.”
“That one looked really big!” I said, still processing how close we were to the creature.
“He was very big, the biggest I have seen in a while,” said Ann. “I would guess between twelve to thirteen feet long. I noticed him right before he began to move and went under.”
Twelve to thirteen feet?! That is nothing to play around with! Alligators often avoid humans unless they feel threatened, like much of the wildlife here. They rarely attack, but mother alligators are known to do so if they feel as though their nests are in danger. These formidable animals are scary looking for a reason. If you happen to find yourself close to an alligator nest, you better move quickly and pray that Mama isn’t close enough to catch you. If Mama Gator ain’t happy, you soon won’t be either.
I didn’t realize how far we had traveled until we got closer to the area that we had started from. Beyond the area thickly populated with cypress and tupelo gum trees, there were at least a dozen boats filled with fishermen and women enjoying the cool air and bright sunshine and hoping to entice perch and bream to bite the ends of their lines. Each group of boaters we passed smiled, nodded, or waved a congenial greeting. Nearing the dock, we crossed paths with an older gentleman with a kind smile and a fishing pole.
“You ladies look like you had a good time,” he said. “Its a beautiful day to be here!”
It certainly was. It was a beautiful day, and a memorable one. It brought to mind that I had entered Black Bayou with a woman I barely knew, and I was leaving with a friend that I admired and respected.
“I’m starting to see that this place is as much of a refuge for people as it is for wildlife,” I said to Ann.
She replied, “You know, I say the exact same thing all the time.”
Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge is seven miles north of I-20, about 1.5 miles north of CenturyLink Headquarters. For more information, go to www.friendsofblackbayou.org, or look for Friends of Black Bayou on Facebook.