Thursday, March 24, 2016

Kayak Bayou Bienvenue to Lake Borgne, then to Fort McComb (shuttle required)

Bayou Bienvenue: If it weren't for my friends at Kayak-iti-Yak talking about it so much, I never would have started looking at this area. But Sonny's pictures of his regular trips and tours through Bayou Bienvenue finally convinced me to check it out. As I studied the map, and saw that Bayou Bienvenue sits just east of downtown, wedged right in between the 9th Ward, NO East, and Chalmette, I realized I had to go exploring. You'll find another post here about my trips between Paris Road and the city. But as I studied the routes, my eyes kept drifting toward the winding route the bayou takes east, out to Lake Borgne.

The bayous and channels that snake through our coastal grasslands can be very interesting to explore and to plan because conditions can be very different from one trip to the next. These areas are heavily influenced by the tides, so you need to check the charts, and understand them. Also, these areas tend to be very exposed to the wind, and the effects of the wind on your paddling will vary within the same trip as you go through the narrow channels, the wide bayous, and the more open lakes, like Lake Borgne.  And, let's face it, these grassy marshlands can start to look alike at kayak level, so the route you see on the map will seem very different out on the water, where one bayou or pass looks like any other: There aren't many landmarks out here. A GPS is a good idea.

It was while studying the online maps and satellite images of Bayou Bienvenue that I realized that one of the major post-Katrina flood projects was actually complete, and cut right across the route that I was planning out to Lake Borgne: The Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, and its big lift gate. This was pretty exciting to a New Orleans boy, since this sort of structure and approach to surge protection never really existed here before Katrina. This flood wall definitely added a layer of curiosity and excitement to my planning.

There's a historical element to this route also: The British used Bayou Bienvenue, and what is now called Bayou Villere, as their "backdoor route" to the city during the War of 1812. After the Battle of New Orleans, it was apparent that this route was too, um..."welcoming", so a small fort, or battery, was built where Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Villere meet. So I was curious to see what remains of Battery Bienvenue, which lies a short distance past the new flood wall and its gate. Sadly, in this historical map below you can see that this area used to be much more of a swampy forest than it is now:

It turns out the LBSB Lift Gate, and another gate just before it, add a very important aspect to the planning process, as I found out on my first exploratory trip on Bayou B. When I first began researching these gates, I was surprised at how hard it was to find information on them. As often is the case when researching kayaking trips, fishing forums were very helpful, but it was hard for me to get official information. It did become clear that the gates were open by default, and it seemed apparent that the gates should be open in any conditions that I'd want to paddle in.  In other words, it sounded like it'd take strong and/or steady winds pushing the water inland to close the gates.

Well, not on October 10, 2015. This was a relatively calm day as I headed out for my first trip on Bayou B, going through the lift gate and beyond. The first gate is officially called The Bayou Bienvenue Flood Control Structure, and it's a part of the earthen levee system. It was open and the water on the other side had a little more energy, but just a little bounce. You actually come out on the northern end of MrGo, which is now closed off by the the Lake Borgne Surge Barrier. I paddled across, and the lift gate on the LBSB was closed. Oh well, I turned around and went exploring Bayou B on the other side of Paris Rd. That part of Bayou B has its own post earlier on this blog.

After more digging for information, and some unanswered inquiries, I finally got an email reply from a nice person at the Army Corps of Engineers, who referred me to a specific office of a levee district. I called that office, and a very helpful person gave me some great info and directed me to the correct district office and contact info. That ultimately got me this email reply:

"The Sector Gate crossing the GIWW and the Lift Gate crossing Bayou Bienvenue are normally in the open position. We are required to exercise each gate regularly. 
During these exercises, they are closed for a short time. Notice of closure is transmitted via marine band radio about an hour advance of such exercises and when the exercises are complete."

I was also directed to this extremely useful site: 
And, clicking on the "home" link on that site took me to a place where I could sign up for alerts for any status change of various flood control structures in the area, including the Bayou Bienvenue/Bayou Dupree Sector Gates, and the Lake Borge Surge Barrier Gates (there is a second gate at the barrier's northern end, at the Intracoastal Waterway).

Sure enough, within two days of my next planned trip through the gates, a weather system came through, and the alerts started. Over the course of a 2 or 3 day period,  I saw that the various gates opened and closed several times. This sort of thing happened again over the next 2 or 3 weeks, and I realized that I really need to have strong confidence in the weather when planning any looping trips through the gates. The distance through Bayou B out to Lake Borgne is about 7 miles, and it's about 3 to the lift gate. So I could potentially be 4 miles from the gate when I got an alert that the gates would be closing "in about an hour", and that's assuming I had my marine radio and/or my phone, and heard the alerts. Basically, combinations of high tides and strong southerly or southeasterly winds can lead to closures.

Here is the loop I was considering, as traced out on gmap-pedometer, but have not actually paddled:
paddle bayou bienvenue

As it turns out, a couple of friends of mine(Maarten Buijsman and Bonny Schumaker) had also found an interest in this area, and one of them suggested we do a point-to-point trip between Paris Road and Fort McComb, over on Chef Pass.  So that was our plan. There were three of us, and we knew we could squeeze 3 kayaks onto one of our cars, and left that car at the take out point. Also, we knew conditions were calm enough for the gates to be open in the morning, so we chose to leave from Paris Road and finish at Fort McComb. This mapped out to be about a 14 mile trip, and instead of doing a simple loop or out-and-back, this route gave us the variety of the bayou, then Lake Borgne, and then the Intracoastal Waterway. It also meant we didn't have to worry about the gates closing while we were out.
This is how the route sketched out on Gmap-pedometer:

And here is how my Garmin Forerunner actually recorded it:
Kayak Bayou Bienvenue Fort McComb

A helpful tip: Study the maps and satellite images well, AND take a GPS. As I say too often, these areas don't have many distinguishing features, and it sometimes gets easy to confuse the various intersecting bayous and channels from your actual route. And, on this particular route, it's really, really easy to convince yourself that you've just found a shortcut out to Lake Borgne. Bayou Bienvenue is very curvy and you spend a lot of time curving north and south on your journey east.   A typical handheld GPS or GPS app usually gives you a pretty small chunk of map to view (or if you zoom out, you lose detail), and it can be very hard to tell that the "shortcut you've discovered" is really just an entrance to a maze that will not lead you out to the lake.  Most of Bayou B is pretty easy to distinguish from the rest of the area, so just follow the bayou and don't get lost.  Again, look at online satellite images, and you'll see: there are no shortcuts out to the lake.

The actual route:

This was a fun trip. The first couple of miles were within the "closed" levee system, and other than boat traffic, it's calm water. We parked near the Bayou Bienvenue Marina and launched from the weeds not too far from the boat launch. From there, we headed east(left). When you launch, the bayou itself is not very well defined, and to your south is a maze of "ponds" and channels. Go a little north of east, or a hard left, and you'll soon see the channel that is Bayou B. Look for an electrical tower, head towards it, and you should be able to see the first gate to your northeast pretty soon. Once through the first gate, it feels more like a small lake--more wind and a little more energy in the water. And there's the new Lake Borgne Surge Barrier to your right, with the lift gate clearly visible.

On this day, we were most likely in a slack tide as we reached the lift gate. Or, perhaps we were in the very earliest part of the flood tide. It was a very mild February day, with pretty light winds of around 5-10 mph. It was calm enough that I decided to not wear my spray skirt so that I could have easy access to my full-sized DSLR camera. But, as we approached the gate, a fishing boat churned through from the other side and we faced a pretty surprising standing wave. At first I thought it was just turbulence from the wake being trapped in the opening of the gate, but it didn't calm down. There was a true standing wave: we paddled up to a wave that did not come to meet us, up and over it, then down into a bowl, and bounced as we paddled up to and over the "other side of the bowl." Just before the gate,  I was snapping pictures and the water was so calm that I just sat the camera on the bottom of my kayak before entering the gate. I saw no need to seal it up in a dry bag.  The turbulence really caught me off guard, and I quickly regretted not having a skirt or bagging my camera.  I got lucky and the camera stayed dry, with only a couple of minor splashes into my cockpit. I mentioned the tide earlier because there didn't seem to be much flow on this day. I have no real education in this, but when looking at a satellite image, it's easy to imagine the energy in the water is very different on one side of the wall than the other. So I suspect some sort of turbulence is not uncommon in this pretty boxy gate opening. I'll have my spray skirt next time. Neither of the pictures below gives a hint of the standing wave, but the second (Maarten's) does barely show the wake of the fishing boat the had just passed.
kayak bayou bienvenue

kayak bayou bienvenue

Once on the other side, a quick look at our GPS told us to head left, and then the bayou was pretty easy to distinguish from the surrounding grasslands.  On this day, near low tide, we paddled through a lot of shallow water. I was frequently hitting the soft bottom or the grass below the surface with my paddle. Water this shallow is much slower to paddle through, and we were probably catching the very beginning of the incoming tide, so our pace was not very fast.

We wound our way through mostly grassy marsh, but we did pass some dry ridges with shell banks and stopped for a quick break on one of them. Just about 2 miles after the gate, we spotted the remnants of the brick wall and structure of Battery Bienvenue. We were a little pressed for time, so we didn't stop, but there did appear to be places where we could have landed and explored. Perhaps on the next trip.
kayak bayou bienvenue

kayak bayou bienvenue

At Battery Bienvenue, the route out to Lake Borgne is to your left, or due east. This is the junction of Bayou Bienvenue and Bayou Villere, so this is where you could go around the battery to your right, and then follow Bayou Villere southwest to MrGo, and then loop back north through the grassy marsh and head back up to the lift gate for an out-and-back loop. But we continued our curvy route out to Lake Borgne. As the pelican flies, it's about 1 1/2 miles to the lake from here. By boat, it's nearly 3 miles.
kayak bayou bienvenue

kayak bayou bienvenue
         Maarten & Bonnie

kayak lake borgne bayou bienvenue
                   Where the bayou meets Lake Borgne

Once we got to the lake, we cut a northeasterly course along the northwestern edge of the lake, following a "riprap" shoreline. It appeared that this was a relatively new coastal restoration effort-the broken rocks were covered with a plastic netting, and for the next four miles, we had this on our left and the lake on our right. To our right, or southeast, the lake (or the lagoon that Lake Borgne really is} is almost directly open to the gulf.  It's easy to imagine that on a windier day, or during a stronger incoming tide, we would have been doing a lot of course correction, or a rudder or skeg would have been more important. I was in a kayak that had neither, a skeg nor a rudder, and I was edging a good bit to counteract my kayak's urge to weathercock to my right. This required just enough paddle-correction and edging that I didn't take any pictures of this section of the trip. Going hands free would have turned my kayak 90 degrees to the right very quickly.

After the third mile following the shoreline, we passed two smaller passes that would have taken us to the Intracoastal Waterway, but we continued to a much larger gap that was an unmistakable opening to the ICW.
kayak lake borgne

This short gap provided an interesting transition zone between the tides and waves of the lake and the calmer waters of the ICW.  Taking a left, then a right, had us on the wide, straight ICW, that took us over to Chef Pass. The ICW had pretty light boat traffic on this day and it was a pleasant, calm paddle. It is wide enough, and surrounded by low grass, that we were feeling the slight wind crossing our beams from our right, so I was still having to maintain an edge to stay straight. Again, on a windier day, or during a stronger tidal flow, this probably would have been more work to hold course. Also, because it's a pretty wide channel, there is plenty of room for boat traffic--just stay near one side or the other. You will experience some wakes from larger or faster boats, but at least the sides are soft marsh, so the waves aren't reflected back at you. Just relax and the waves roll under you....
Along the way to Chef Pass, you may spot one or two openings to your left, but continue past them until you see Chef Pass, which is very wide and easy to spot. Go left, pass under the very rusty Hwy 90 (Chef Menteur Hwy) bridge and then drift to your left to Fort McComb.
paddle fort mccomb
            I borrowed this picture of Fort McComb from my friend Maarten

The marina where we left our shuttle car is behind the fort, so go left before the fort, and then go right and you'll see the marina and boat launch. It's a short 10-15 minute drive back to the launch and the other vehicles.

Actual trip distance was 14.10 miles according to my Garmin Forerunner.

Launch/Take out Locations:

Here's where we parked and launched:,-89.9437,304m/data=!3m1!1e3

And here's where we parked the shuttle car and ended our paddle:,-89.8068606,294m/data=!3m1!1e3

In both spots, there are pay-to-launch boat launches, but we parked in public spots and just didn't use the actual boat launch to launch (we did to take out). If you chose to take advantage of the private parking and launch, the cost is $7 as of early 2016, and you'd have to pay that at each location. So we opted for getting our feet wet and just launched from the weeds.

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