Jean Lafitte National Historic Park
Most of the Mississippi River's delta in Louisiana is comprised of wetlands. Within the Barataria Preserve of the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park are delta wetlands comprised of marsh, swamp, and natural levee forest. Interlacing these land forms are bayous, canals, and trenasses—nearly 24 miles (33 km) of waterways weave throughout the Preserve.
Nine miles (14 km) of canoe trails, closed to motorized boats, and accessible by three canoe launch docks allow further exploration of the swamps and marshes. Another 20 miles (32 km) of waterways are open to all types of boats. Canoe rentals are available just outside the Preserve, and a number of public and private boat launches provide access for motor boats.
Much of the Preserve can be reached with small motorized craft launched at Bayou Segnette State Park or any one of the public or private boat launches located along Bayou Barataria. However, many of the most characteristic and beautiful areas of the Preserve are along waterways in which motorized boats are not allowed. These waterways are open to canoes, or to pirogues, the flat-bottomed, keel-less canoes characteristic of south Louisiana.
Canoeing in the Preserve is a wonderful experience and allows you to see the wetlands from water level. Take you pick of canoe trails...
Bayou des Familles Through the heart of the Preserve
Bayou Coquille Where the bayous converge. Prehistoric middens (piles of shells)
Kenta Canal, Lower Kenta A relaxing float filled with life
Kenta Canal, Upper Kenta Contrasts - in the distance, New Orleans' tallest building
Twin Canals Prime area for bank-side fishing within the Preserve
Pipeline Canal Good possibility of seeing alligators
Tarpaper Canal Area of former hunting/fishing camps
Trenasses Through dense mats of floating plants
Protected Waters (Non-motorized boats only)
Bayou des Familles
Length: 3.6 miles (5.8 km). Distance through Preserve 3/4 mile (1.2 km). Canoe launch to Bayou Coquille.
Bayou des Familles curves through the heart of the Preserve. Indeed, it is the heart, for through this channel, some 2,000 years ago, the waters of the muddy Mississippi distributed the sediments that built this portion of the delta. Today, cut off by the great river's meandering, the bayou is now a shady, lazy waterway. Baldcypress and water tupelo now stand in the filled channel. Along the way, you may witness a heron stalking frogs along the bank or follow the line of bubbles as a huge alligator snapping turtle pulls itself along the murky bottom.
Families of Canary Islanders, Islenos, settled here briefly in the late 1700s. Hurricanes and floods eventually drove them away, but the bayou's name, des Familles, French meaning "of the Families," immortalizes their brief sojourn along the bayou's banks.
Length: 1.1 miles (1.8 km)
If you would want to live in a wetland area, a prime location would be the convergence of Bayou Coquille and Bayou des Familles.
The silt deposited by the bayous have formed a natural levee. Mounds of shells (middens) are now visible along the banks of the bayou. These shells provide the evidence needed to prove people lived here. Clams were the major diet of these prehistoric people. Coquille, French meaning "shell," was the refuse.
As you float further you leave the shells and enter the swamp. Constant shade is now upon you, casting a mysterious feel to the area. Stumps of enormous Baldcypress are along the route. Notice the notches cut into the stumps. A board was placed in the notches, two men stood on the board with a crosscut saw enabling them to stand above the water. If paddling toward Kenta Canal you will take a sharp left turn and notice the channel is much deeper. This is because you have left the bayou and are now in a logging "cut," dug by a logging company to float cypress out of the swamp. The bayou has silted in. Prior to floating the cypress, the trees had to be "girdled" (cut around the bark to allow the sap to drain out). If it hadn't been done the tree would sink. At the meeting of Bayou Coquille and Lower Kenta are several "sinkers." These logs have retained their value, for as long as cypress has been underwater it is just as strong as when it was originally cut.
Kenta Canal, Lower Kenta
Length: 2.5 miles (1.6 km), 1/4 mile (0.2 km) Bayou Coquille to Kenta bridge
One end of lower Kenta is emptying into Bayou Barataria—part of the Intercoastal Waterway. Fifty yards in from the bayou is Lower Kenta canoe launch. A local name for the canal is "Priest Canal" from the Catholic church nearby. Kenta was the first name of a woman, who with her husband and family, established a sugar cane plantation in the mid to late 1800s. The canal was dug to transport goods and supplies and also for drainage for the plantation. Near the canoe launch are ditches dug to drain the plantation fields now boarded up. Other than these it is difficult to ascertain the plantation. Later, in the early 1900s, the canal was used to float cypress.
Today, this is a relaxing float filled with life. Great blue herons, great egrets, or white ibis can be seen quietly searching the water for food. Kenta canal is also a good chance to see alligators from March to November. Often you only see the protruding snouts out of the water. Estimating the number of inches between the eyes and the end of the snout is in relation to how long they are in feet. The Marsh Overlook Trail borders Lower Kenta leading to the Kenta footbridge. At the base of the Kenta footbridge is a platform to dock, stretch, and view the freshwater marsh. One of the most productive ecosystems on earth, it is the nursery of life. Shrimp, oysters, crabs, and fish all have their start in the marsh. Birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians are also provided for in this teeming ecosystem.
Kenta Canal, Upper Kenta
Length: 1.25 miles (2 km) Kenta footbridge to Twin Canals
In the late 1950s this portion of Kenta canal was dredged and widened by an oil company. The building seen from the canal looking north is One Shell Square, the tallest building in New Orleans. In the spring and summer on hot and humid twilight nights it is difficult to talk because of the frog chorus. There are several species and each has its own distinct voice. Along the way are "cuts" dug by an oil exploration company. There were several exploratory wells dug in the 1940s-70s within the Preserve though little or no oil or gas was discovered.
Length: 3/4 mile (1.2 km)
The Twin canals were dug in the 1970s to develop a subdivision. The project developed legal problems and was not completed. A pumping station built near the parking lot, would have drained water from the south canal, lifted it over the levee, and dumped it into the north canal (the navigable canal). Today, there are black willow, live oak, hackberry, wax myrtle, and many other trees establishing themselves between the two canals on the manmade levee. This is the prime area for bank-side fishing within the Preserve. Near the intersection with Upper Kenta is an open marsh. Quite often in the spring and fall you can see huge flocks of wading birds.
Open Waters (Motorized boats permitted)
Motorized boat traffic is very light on the open waters within the Preserve.
Named for a submerged oil pipeline that passes through the Preserve, Pipeline canal was dug in the 1950s to transport oil exploration equipment. Today, the elevated spoil banks of the canal have caused bottomland hardwood trees to grow in the freshwater marsh surroundings. Generally, paddlers venture 0.5-1 mile down the canal from the Kenta canal footbridge. There is a good possibility of seeing alligators between March and November on the banks or in the water. The farther south you proceed the wider the canal becomes and eventually intersects with Bayou Segnette Waterway.
Former hunting/fishing camps constructed of tarpaper is the cause for this canal's unique name. Much like Pipeline canal, Tarpaper also lies within the freshwater marsh.
The freshwater marsh is made up of grasses, rushes, sedges, and other aquatic plants growing together in a dense floating mat, called flotant. Approximately a foot under the mat is open water. Pathways have been dug through the flotant in order to maneuver through the marsh. These passageways, wide enough for one pirogue or canoe at a time, are called trenasses (a colloquial Cajun French word).
Paddling through the trenasses enables you to experience the wide variety of life found in the freshwater marsh. Nutria, otter, alligators, and birds—sandpipers, herons, egrets, ibis, kingfishers, and gallinules.
Canoeing in the Preserve is a wonderful experience and allows you to see the wetlands from water level. However, certain rules and respect must be understood before heading into this wilderness.
The Barataria Preserve conducts three hour ranger guided canoe treks on Sunday mornings. The treks are free of charge and reservations are required. The Preserve does not provide canoes. A list of canoe rentals is available. For further information contact the Barataria visitor center at 504-589-2330.
No registration is required to paddle on your own—the waterways are open at all times. There are three canoe launches within the Preserve—the Bayou des Familles launch in the Pecan Grove area (check the gate closing time!), the Twin Canals launch, and the Lower Kenta Canal launch. Before setting out on your trip, inform either the canoe rental, a friend, or a relative of your expected time of return.
State law requires each person in a boat to have a life preserver. Do not attempt canoe travel during a lightening storm. Never stand in a canoe, keep your weight low and centered. If you capsize, just stand up—in most places the water is shallow. In deeper water, remain with the canoe—it floats. Bring a first aid kit, rain gear, insect repellent, drinking water, a sun hat and sunscreen, and a flashlight for evening trips.
All animals and plants, within the Preserve, are protected by law. Harassment of wildlife is illegal. Alligators often allow you to view them at close range, however, you must respect their power and size. DO NOT FEED THE ALLIGATORS!! Besides being extremely unhealthy for their diet, continued feeding will cause them to associate food with people, removing their natural tendency to avoid us. Be mindful of paper wasp nests in the Wax Myrtle bushes along the banks. Do not gather wildflowers, Spanish moss, or any other type of vegetation.
Other than in the picnic area grills, open flames are not permitted within the Preserve.
Fishing is allowed within the Preserve with a valid Louisiana state fishing license. Sunfish (perch), Crappie (sac-au-fait), Largemouth bass, catfish, and bowfin (choupique) are the most sought after fish in the Preserve.
Strive to enable others to explore and enjoy the Preserve as you have. Paddle out what you paddle in. This includes any "biodegradable" trash. Experience the natural sounds around you, do not bring audio equipment with you.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication