Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Paddling North Pass Manchac and Its Bayous

The North Pass of Manchac connects Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. It's the lesser known "Pass Manchac", and it and the South Pass form "Jones Island", which is actually labeled on some maps. The North Pass itself is a pleasant paddle, but the point of this trip is to explore some of the bayous off of the pass. I'm not sure exactly what it is that I love about these bayous, but I feel completely removed from the rest of the world and completely in touch with nature. I feel like a kid exploring some place new. It's partly because this entire area is very exposed to the sky, so these little bayous feel like a few other swamp trips, except with wide open sky overhead and nothing stopping the wind. And nobody else around (unless they came with you).  It just feels free.

kayak t-bayou pass manchac
T Bayou
This "trip" is different from most I'll describe because there is not one specific destination or loop. This is a trip I take to explore, escape, and take pictures. On my last trip out here, about 8 miles was on the pass and about 3 miles in the small bayous. In my descriptions below, if I make a reference to a landmark and distance, that is the distance from the launch if you stayed only on the pass. I won't know which bayous you're going to explore, so I won't know your mileage. T-Bayou, for example, is about 1.6 miles from the launch if you do not explore any of the bayous before it. 
kayak north pass manchac

Take I-55 to the Manchac exit, then head north on Hwy 51. Very soon, within the first 1/2 mile, you'll see a large parking area to the left. This parking area is so large that first timers tend to not realize it's the boat launch and miss the turn in. Look for the very tall antenna tower and pull in. The sheriff's trailer is also a good landmark. You can launch from the actual boat launch, or go to the left and launch from the shore under I-55.

The launch

Here's a gmap-pedometer.com route showing the launch and some of the options. This is not a record of an actual trip I took, just some ideas I traced out:

General Comments/considerations:
It’s important to note that from our launch, you pass under the old Hwy 51 Bridge, which is very low-sometimes tight for a kayak--so very few boats go our direction. You may see a single boat on this trip. You will be, and you will feel, very isolated out here. Enjoy that, but consider safety—you should not expect anyone to come along if you need help.

Also, any firm ground I’ve seen along the North Pass is private property. Everything else is marsh. Expect to NOT be able to land and stretch or heed nature’s call.

A 12-14 ft kayak or canoe would be perfect for these bayous. I’ve always been in 16’-18’ kayaks and have had to turn around sooner than I wanted because it can get too narrow to turn a long kayak around. However, on really windy days, a small kayak will be challenged out in the pass. As I'll describe below, the wind can be a major factor in the pass, so check the weather, and compromise between a "pass friendly" and a "narrow bayou friendly" canoe or kayak.

It's hard to call this either an easy or hard paddle. On any day, parts of it will be very easy. But, on some days, the pass can be challenging due to the wind. When fronts come through this area, they bring strong WNW winds that often shift to strong NE winds. Those winds get some time over Lake Maurepas or Lake Pontchartrain and pick up speed before funneling into the pass. Some of the toughest winds I’ve paddled have been in the North Pass during season change. My experience confirms what I’ve read: tide influence is not significant through this pass, especially relative to the wind. So it's very important to emphasize how strong the wind can be through the pass. Sometimes, as I come out of the side bayous, headed back to the main pass, the pass very much looks like a river thanks to the strong, wind-driven current.  On one beautiful but windy spring day, we saw quite a few alligators swimming in the pass and the bayous, and the water had just enough energy that my companion was not comfortable, and we simply headed back after we left the first bayou. If you're not sure of your limits and abilities, and you've got gators around, do what's best for yourself.

My first flip in a kayak occurred as I exited T Bayou and the east wind broadsided me, sending me over. Granted, I was in the wrong kayak(my skinny, tippy "racing" boat). On this "flip" episode, I paddled the left-side bayous first, going east from the launch. On my return trip, going west, the tailwind nearly snatched my paddle from my hands a couple of times. I was actually uncomfortable with the strong tailwind and the very strong current lifting my kayak up from behind, and was glad to take a break in T Bayou. But, coming out of T Bayou, I tried to work myself into the very fast, short-wave waves coming from my right as I turned left, got sloppy and then got hit by a gust of wind, and "DUNK!" By the time I exited the kayak and got alongside it to assess the situation, I was easily 20 feet "down river" and still moving. And remember: there is no firm ground to use for recovery. Sadly, some of my best pictures of some of these bayous floated away from me (with my phone, and worse, my car key) during this episode. I won't make it sound like I was in blowing surf, but this "flat water" was moving very fast, and between that and the incredible wind, I couldn't really consider going back to look for the bag my phone was in. I had my kayak in one hand and my paddle in the other, and I needed to figure out how to get back in my kayak. I did get back in. And learned that a dry bag is great, but if it's got your phone and keys in it, it helps to have it tethered to your boat or yourself.

kayak manchac
This is your "shore" on most of this trip.

This entire area  used to be a cypress forest, but it was logged away. Countless little and not-so-little canals were created to get better access to the trees for logging, and those canals helped turn the dying forest into a marshy “prairie”. These canals also intersect with the bayous, and can create a maze. I'm sure it could get confusing if you explore every turn and option you come across.

Starting from Hwy 51 and going east, the North Pass of Manchac is very wide and exposed to the wind and sun. It then narrows a good bit after a mile and a half or so, but remains wide enough to feel the wind, possibly mixed with some tidal flow.

When you turn off into the small bayous, you lose any current, but you'll still feel the wind to a lesser extent. On a windy day, the boat will move a lot while you're trying to compose your photographs. Tree growth is very sparse, so these various bayous are still open to a big sky (don’t forget sunscreen). But the vegetation gets tall enough,and there are just enough trees along these bayous that as they narrow, you feel a little more sheltered. It’s a stark change from the main pass. I always experience a very calming and liberating feeling as I paddle through these bayous. Nearly 360 degrees of sky, dragon flies and birds and turtles and not another human around. Sometimes I wonder when the last human passed through some of these spots. On summer afternoons, you may see the thunderstorms bubbling up on the horizon (hopefully no closer) all around you.

Route Details:
From the launch, head to the right/east of the main launch and pass under the very low Hwy 51 bridge. After passing under the low bridge, heading east, the pass is very wide and almost feels more like a lake. The first bayou worth exploring is on the left in about 3/4 of a mile. The next one is in another quarter mile or so, also on the left. Some of these bayous intersect the pass at shallow angles, and sometimes they're very overgrown, so you may miss some from one season to the next. Because I've only explored these in my long kayak, I've always turned around before I really wanted to as the bayous narrow down to just a few feet wide. Consider this also if you're going with a group--at some point you'll have to turn that train around.

These next 3 or 4 photos are from the main pass:
kayak pass manchac
The very beginning of the trip, at the Maurepas end of the pass.

kayak pass manchac
This used to be a cypress forest.
paddle north pass manchac

kayak pass manchac

You should find at least 2 or 3 of these bayous on the left that are worth exploring in the first mile and a half. Then cross over to the right side, and right around 1.6 miles or so from the launch you’ll see T Bayou, which is named for its shape.  There are smaller channels but mainly there is a single path to the right at the top of the T, and then 2 or 3 routes to the left. T Bayou looks a little different each time, but it's always beautiful. A mixture of dying forest, a few living cypress, and just tons of nature. You can easily paddle for a mile or more in here. So, consider mileage—you may explore 3 miles of bayous within the first 1.6 miles (3.2 round trip), so you can do 5-6 miles easily in the first short stretch, never being very far from your launch. 

paddling bayou manchac

paddling kayak bayou manchac
As you can see, a long kayak will eventually have a hard time turning around.

kayak bayou pass manchac

Alternatively, if you continue going east on the pass, past T Bayou, you'll pass some more small bayous on the left--and again, you may paddle right past one or two. After about the 3rd mile from launch, you may find one or two more until you get to the very wide Central Bayou.
kayak manchac pass

I haven't explored that yet, but the maps & satellite images show another network of canals and bayous.

kayak bayou pass manchac
One of the last bayous before Central Bayou, and definitely one of the more heavily wooded bayous. With a nice little photo op on one trip (see below):

Overall, the North Pass is about 8 miles from lake to lake, but it's very easy to do great exploratory trips of 8 to 10 miles within the first 3 or 4 miles of the launch if you take enough turns.

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