Friday, January 29, 2016

Paddling the Rigolets from Fort Pike: 2 routes, plus a third option

Paddling through the Rigolets is quite an experience and I really enjoy it. But for many reasons, I’m going to rate this as an intermediate to advanced paddle. The cautious tone I'll have here is mainly because I've just seen too many people try to do 10-15 mile trips in boats that are just not adequate, and often their skills and fitness levels aren't up to task either. This trip, in the wrong boat, on the wrong day, could be rough. If you've paddled a bit, know some of your limits and want to test them a little, and know how to read a tide chart, this can be a good route for you. The route I'll describe through St Catherine Pass and the Rigolets is 13-14 miles.  Some of that, at some point, will be against the flow of the tide.  
Compared to most of my other articles, this one will be more about the conditions and safety concerns, and less about the photography and details of the route. I’ll list some images of maps and routes, and you’ll see that the common routes are pretty easy to follow.

Here's a capture from Google Earth of three routes my Garmin has recorded on some of my trips in this area. This post is primarily about the fuchsia route in this image, but I also mention the light blue route.
paddle rigolets fort pike pearl river

The light blue route also has its own post here:

And, the red route is described in this post:

A few things need to be considered before paddling the Rigolets, Lake St Catherine, and Bay Jaune, as well as the passes between the Rigolets and Bay Jaune, all affecting safety and difficulty levels. First and foremost are the tides.  This area is a coastal marsh, so any trip or loop in this area, and especially on the 8 mile Rigolets, has to be based around the timing and flow of the tides. I will not pretend to be an expert in this area—my knowledge of tides is  pretty amateurish, to be honest. But I can speak to experiences that I’ve had. 

In very general terms, look at a map of this area, and try to envision an overall movement of water, either going out, or coming in. That's a lot of water being squeezed into small channels. So, if you leave from Fort Pike and head out to Lake St Catherine and then Bay Jaune with an ebb tide (tide going out), your paddle will be fun and easy until you turn back towards the fort in the Rigolets itself, and then you’ll slow down a lot, depending on the range of the tides and your timing.  How the tidal currents will feel going through Bay Jaune and St Catherine Pass is fairly predictable—you’ll work harder or more easily, depending on the your heading versus the tide. But, the same is not true of the Rigolets. 

My first two or three times out here, I really had a simplistic view of the flow of the tides. For an amateur at understanding tides, it was easy for me to look at the map and think of the flow through the Rigolets as being like the flow of a river. I assumed it would simply be "with me" or "against me" as the tides moved in and out. But that’s really not the case here. This is not a river, whose course was cut by the one-way flow of water, so you're not simply paddling upstream or downstream. This is a curved, narrow pass that has water “pushed" or "pulled" through it with each movement of the tide. The flow interacts with the shape of the land on both sides, so there’s a good bit of reflective energy. This channel also gets pretty deep compared to the areas around it--in excess of 50 feet. so there's a lot of energy, and it can feel very bouncy. And the energy changes as you pass through each curve. 

I have paddled through the Rigolets on the day of a full moon (Spring Tide), and was paddling “with” the flow through the Rigolets, but I hardly felt any benefit. My partner and I were in nice sea kayaks, but with no skegs or rudders, and it was a lot of work. We had already fought against the tide paddling through Bay Jaune and St Catherine Pass getting to the Rigolets, thinking we'd ride the flood tide in once we hit the Rigolets. Not so much. We were tired from the effort getting to the Rigolets, and once there, the water was very bouncy and our boats were really weather cocking. This was the wrong day to bring an inexperienced paddler, especially in a boat without a skeg or rudder. I did not know there was a full moon (poor planning), and I'm sure the tidal range was larger due to that, so more water was moving that day. For my partner, with little experience in bouncy water or with edging and correcting for pretty severe weather cocking, who was already tired, this was just too much. Especially with a good bit of fast moving motor boat traffic. As we moved through the Rigolets, the water energy changed with the shape of the channel,  and we'd go from weather cocking to the left for a while, then to the right for a while. For more experienced and confident paddlers, it could have been a fun day to test fitness and boat handling.

But that day was the most difficult I've experienced out here. I've had several trips through the Rigolets that were much, much calmer, with the main concern simply being the direction of the tide or the wind. In fact, the last time I paddled this area, I got to the Rigolets at the very end of the incoming tide, or more likely at slack tide, and it was the smoothest part of the entire trip. 

And of course, wind will have a very strong influence. There’s a lot of open water around, and that’s surrounded by flat terrain and only grassy vegetation. So if there’s a wind, you’ll feel it. The marsh grass offers some protection from the wind as you pass through any of the smaller channels, but not a lot. 

In Lake St Catherine and Bay Jaune, you’ll probably only encounter fishing boats, but some will be moving pretty fast. In the Rigolets, you’ll encounter a large variety of boats, most moving fast, and few expecting to see kayaks out there. Stay to the edges, and if you need to cross from one side to the other, be very careful. The crossing can be a third to a half mile, and again, larger vessels won’t be looking for you.

Finally, another consideration is that you may not encounter any firm ground to stop and take a break. On the St Catherine Pass option, you should be able to pull over and rest at the train tracks just past the left hand turn that you’ll see on that route image. Basically, go past your left hand turn, take a break, and then keep right when you set off again. If you want to add a little bit to the paddle, there's a sandy landing spot past the RR bridge, also. On the Counterfeit Pass route, you should expect to have to stay in your boat the entire time.

None of this is to discourage you. It's only meant to prepare you and to make sure you plan your trip and know what you could experience. I really do enjoy paddling through the Rigolets. 

Okay, the routes:
As I mentioned above, the routes are pretty easy to follow on a map, but it is worth remembering that one “intersection” in the marsh looks like another, and you will come across some small waterways through the marsh grass that you may confuse with your actual route. If you take the route through Counterfeit Pass, it would certainly be helpful to load the route into a GPS device. It’s not that hard to follow, but again, you may get tempted to go down the wrong path. The route through St Catherine Pass is easier to follow, since that pass is pretty wide and easy to distinguish from the others. To follow this route, you just need to look for the very wide and noticeable left hand turn shown on the image I’ve provided. In the route image below, you can see the train tracks where you should be able to stop and relax. This is actually just past the left turn I mentioned above, so you can go past the turn, land, stretch and eat, and then head back to the Rigolets. Looking at the map, you can see that St Catherine Pass has a much more direct flow to and from Lake Borgne, so the tidal influence is very noticeable.

I actually haven't yet made it through Counterfeit Pass, but I'm eager to. I am curious to see if the tidal influence is less noticeable, since this pass is really an offshoot from the Rigolets, and runs more perpendicular to the general tidal flow. My hunch is that the tidal flow is a little less strong here, but I just don't know yet. On the day I intended to take this path, my GPS failed, my directional confidence was low, and tidal flow was very strong, so I didn't want to take any wrong turns, and I just went to St Catherine Pass (and worked very hard against the current). I've added an image of gmap-pedometer route through Counterfeit Pass also, as well as a link to that route that you could export as a GPX to add to your GPS.

Finally, some friends and I did a very fun paddle down the Old Pearl River to the Rigolets once that involved only a short vehicle shuttle from Fort Pike to our launch farther down Hwy 90. I've included an image of that route, as recorded by my Garmin Forerunner. That launch was right across Hwy 90 from Cajun Encounters Swamp Tours. 

The Fort Pike Launch:
Just west of Fort Pike on Hwy 90 is a public boat launch:,-89.7371044,164m/data=!3m1!1e3

fort pike boat launch rigolets
The launch at Fort Pike

kayak rigolets
A loop through St Catherine Pass to the Rigolets. The white line cutting the bottom right corner is the train tracks, and that's one spot to stop and stretch and eat.
kayak rigolets
An option going through Counterfeit Pass, with a link to this below:

kayak rigolets pearl river
Old Pearl River to Rigolets, with  short car shuttle between launch and finish.
lake st catherine kayaking
Lake St Catherine, just leaving the launch.
kayak lake st catherine rigolets
As you launch from Fort Pike, you should see the Rigolets train bridge off in the distance (above picture).  But this is NOT the same train bridge you'll come to on St. Catherine Pass.

rigolets kayak
Lunch at the train tracks--above and below:

rigolets kayaking
As you can see, it's wide open out here--nothing to stop the wind.

rigolets kayaking
Just past the train bridge

rigolets kayaking
There's a lot of open water out here.

fort pike kayak
Fort Pike
fort pike kayak

fort pike kayak

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