Saturday, July 30, 2016

Kayaking Bayou St John: Paddling escape in the center of New Orleans

Bayou St John: a true gem right in the center of the city. If you haven't paddled here yet, you definitely should. Except on very windy days, the paddling here is calm, safe, relaxing, beautiful, and a great mix of urban and not-quite-so urban. Especially north of I-610, the bayou is pretty exposed to the wind, so you can definitely get a good workout, especially in our windy seasons. In fact, in spring and fall, when cool fronts bring strong northerly winds, you can expect to get a very good workout as you head north towards the lake on BSJ above I-610,  But most of the time, it's great for beginners or social paddles, and you can go out for an hour or two and just escape from the city around you, or get in a good, heads-down workout.

Quick June 2020 update regarding inflatable kayaks: Yep:2020. Covid-19 and the economy grinding to a halt. This all happened during weeks and weeks of the best weather we ever get here. So...bicycle shops ran out of bikes, and Bayou St John got covered with inflatable kayaks.  If inflatable kayaks are the way to get you paddling, that's a good thing. But remember, most are made for portability and price. They tend to be short, and "puffy", and they do present real challenges in strong winds. And the wind really can get strong on Bayou St John in fall and spring-and it's not always directly from the north. I've seen people enjoy a great paddle up to Robert E Lee Blvd, only to turn around and realize they can barely control or propel their inflatable kayak the 2 or 3 miles back to their car. I imagine some got out and walked (really). Newbies often aren't aware that they're getting a nice push to their turnaround spot, and if it's windy, the wind gets much stronger as the bayou widens north from I-610. If you're in an inflatable kayak, or a very inexpensive 8' or 9' plastic boat, figure out which way the wind is blowing, get a feel for paddling into it, and then decide which direction helps you get a tail wind on your return trip. Better yet, if you're not sure, stay south of I-610 (LSU School of Dentistry), where the bayou is narrower and more shielded from the wind. Because it's narrower and has more traffic, this is the safer end of Bayou St John.

Having said all that, if you're not in an inflatable kayak, Bayou St John is on nobody's "adventure paddling" list, but it's so pretty, and so convenient, that there are always other paddlers out on the bayou, and we do a few social paddles here each year. You'll pass parents and kids, folks enjoying beers, groups of friends in rentals, and some pretty hardcore paddlers working out in their racing boats. It's so convenient for me, personally, that I spend a lot of time on Bayou St John. And, except in winter months, I almost always see groups of paddlers from one, or all, of the businesses I mention at the end of this post. It's the "City Park" of paddling in New Orleans.,-90.0936332,15z
kayak bayou st john
Only non-motorized boats are allowed, so it's very safe on the bayou after dark.
It appears that for the remainder of 2024, Bayou St John will basically be split in two at Desaix Blvd. You can paddle between Desaix and Orleans, or between Desaix and Allen Toussaint Blvd (formerly Robt E Lee). But the bayou is closed under the Desaix bridge while it gets replaced. South of Desaix is the pretty, residential, "day in the park" part of Bayou St John, but this is a pretty short stretch. Kayak-ity-yak tours still does this, and simply portages around the work at Desaix. 
In my surfski (my workout boat), I have to be careful with my launch spots, due to the not-so-tough hull and the fixed rudder. So I have a couple of spots on Wisner Blvd that I mention later in this post, and just workout in the longer, wider and, usually windier, section north of Desaix. 
This work is due to be completed in December of 2024.
By the way, the picture below is right below the Wisner overpass, across from the LSU School of Dentistry. This is a very popular launch spot, but the large grassy parking area and small dock are now completely blocked off as a staging ground for the Desaix bridge project. 2024 will look very different on BSJ with this launch spot unavailable and the bayou interrupted like this.
full moon paddle bayou st john
A group full moon paddle.

paddle bayou st john

paddle bayou st john
It can get windy on Bayou St John:
paddle bayou st john

kayak bayou st john
I really don't need to describe much here, since you really can't get lost here. But I will share some ideas for launching, some highlights and important notes, and even list some rental and tour options if you don't have a boat.

Let's talk a little about water levels and hazards, because every now and then levels do drop low enough to create some problems.Here's how I understand the factors affecting levels:
Water enters the bayou from the lake, and is pumped to the City Park lagoons to maintain certain levels. The flood gates where the bayou meets the lake were replaced after Hurricane Katrina, and for 2 or 4 years after that the water levels in Bayou St John stayed pretty constant, and in my original version of this post, I barely brought the topic up. But over the last few years, I felt an update was a good idea.
Relevant to this post, there are at least three reasons to pay attention to water levels: One: If you use the sloping concrete banks to put-in/take-out, low water can make this tricky; Two: There are some hazards (stumps, posts, unknown items) that are just close enough to the surface that if the level drops just 8-10 inches from "average" levels, you could hit them; Three: Levels affect the safety of passing under 2 or 3 of the bridges. I discuss each of these later.
A wetland restoration project on the north side of the gates took hold in 2017 and 2018, and there was also an effort to allow the bayou's ecosystem to more closely match the lake's. The folks monitoring this realized that there was a benefit to allowing the bayou levels to drop a little more than previously, so that when the gates are opened, there is a larger flow of "ecosystem" from the lake to the bayou. By 2019, levels did begin to fluctuate more than they had as a part of this process, nothing too dramatic, but enough to sometimes expose one or two semi-submerged hazards.
However, in 2019 at least two other factors interacted with this new process: In early 2019, an invasive plant, giant salvinia, came in through the gates at the lake and began smothering large sections of the bayou. For a few reasons related to the control effort, and the closing of the gates for weeks at a time, the water level got exceptionally low. Various hazards that are normally well below the surface were suddenly above water, or worse, inches below the water. I bent a rudder, and a friend badly scratched his surf ski. By April, the control project ended and levels went back to normal. Later in 2019, the "Spillway" was opened to control the level of the Mississippi River. The Spillway drains fresh water from the river into the lake, and this has several negative effects to the ecosystems of the lake, and ultimately, the coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi. Blue-green algae caused most beaches along the gulf coast to close for weeks, and the lake was declared unsafe.
Therefore, to protect the bayou, the gates were kept closed for many weeks, and by mid-August of 2019, levels in Bayou St John were so low that I began avoiding it for fear of damaging my boat. Eventually, this algae crisis passed, and things returned to normal.
***quick May 2021 update: we've now gone 18 months or so with water levels remaining very normal, with fairly infrequent fluctuations, making this long topic about levels seem almost unnecessary. Hopefully we just had a couple of bad seasons in 2019.***

When the water is really low, you should try to stay near the center of the bayou, especially under bridges. One or two of the bridges (Dumaine and Desaix, at least) are a lot shallower on the sides than they are at the center. There is no gauge or easy way to quantify "high versus low",  but here are a couple of rules of thumb:

Along the sloped concrete banks, if the water is around 2 feet or more from the grass line, stay in the center of the bayou, especially under the bridges. If you're launching from one of the grassy/muddy spots, the water should come up to the "bank"--you should be stepping into a few inches or more of water, not onto a dry bayou floor. Also see my note below about the Magnolia Bridge clearance later in this post.

On my to-do list for this post is to try to label some of these hazards on a satellite photo--they're scattered across 3 or 4 miles, and different ones are exposed at different levels. For now, look below at the section on the Magnolia bridge, and feel comfortable that if the water level is near or above what I loosely call "average", you shouldn't have to worry about hidden hazards. Otherwise, pay attention and if the level is more than 3 or 4 inches below that "average", the more you should stay near the center line of the bayou (and pay attention).

Okay,  about the actual paddling:

I'll just discuss the section between Orleans Avenue at the south end, and Robert E. Lee Drive at the north end, which is about 3.25 miles. This section makes it easy to do a simple, 6 1/2 mile out-and-back paddle, or a little more if you go around Demourelles Island.
You can think of BSJ as having two pretty distinctly different sections: North of I-610, and south of I-610. Below I-610, and especially between Esplanade Ave and Orleans Ave, the bayou is narrow, and makes an S curve through a beautiful old New Orleans neighborhood. There is always activity around the bayou at this end: cyclists, runners, families, friends hanging out, dogs chasing balls, you name it. I love starting and finishing my paddles at this end of the bayou, seeing this vibrant neighborhood enjoying this amazing slice of nature. As the sun sets over the bayou, the activity slows down a little, but folks group together on porches, or under trees or on the Magnolia Bridge and continue to socialize and enjoy this beautiful, friendly neighborhood. Bayou St John is the heart of this little neighborhood that shares its name.

kayak bayou st john
In my opinion, some of the best sunset pictures in the city are just south of the Magnolia Bridge:
paddle bayou st john

kayak bayou st john
North of I-610, especially north of Harrison Ave, the bayou really opens up and starts to feel like a small lake. Immediately north of Harrison is Demourelles Island, and you can make a short trip around this small island. And you should: it's really calm and beautiful back there, and you could forget for a moment that you are actually in the center of New Orleans.

kayak bayou st john
Okay, let's talk about bridges:
At the south end, there is the Orleans Ave bridge, which is a solid slab underside (meaning you have to stay crouched the entire time you pass under), and often has very tight clearance. I usually don't go under this bridge. North of that is Dumaine, which has a nice, arched bridge with plenty of clearance. Next, continuing north, is the Magnolia Bridge, which is the foot bridge near Cabrini High School. The clearance here can be very tight and every now and then, I just can't do it. Even at its easiest, it's tight--some folks lie flat back, and others just lean as far forward as they can. Put a hand between your head and the bridge as you pass under, just to make sure. The brim of your hat may catch the bridge, so I take mine off. When the wind is fighting you and the water is high, it can be even harder to squeeze under. But, the vast majority of the time, I can get under. In comfortable weather, or as the sun sets in summer, you can always expect to see people relaxing on this bridge (it is closed to traffic). I have been offered beer, wine, and popcorn(yep, someone was handing out bags of popcorn on Nat'l Popcorn Day. And yes, it was good.) from people on this bridge as I've passed under.
kayak bayou st john
Here's a rough helper photo, taken after the 2018 restoration of the Magnolia Bridge:
kayak bayou st john
Using the yellow arrow as a reference, you'll see the concrete base, then the flat ring gear, then the series of wheels/gears. In this picture, the water is lower than "average" (I won't attempt to quantify "normal"), and passing under is very easy. At this level, however, some semi-submerged hazards will be exposed at various places along the length of the bayou, and you should keep an eye out. Any lower than his level, and I'll say you should really pay attention. At the other extreme, when the water is near the top of the concrete base, you'll need to slow down and size it up, but you should be able to pass under by leaning forward.  It's really a matter of seeing it up close, realizing how much clearance you really have, and going for it. In June of 2020, in my Epic V8 Pro surfski, I was able to pass under with the water an inch or two above the flat ring gear, overlapping the wheels. Of course, this is my backyard and you'll have to find your own comfort zone for your boat. Speaking very generally, in normal times and conditions, the water level seems to stay within 3 or 4 inches of the top of the concrete base, or the yellow arrow, and passing under doesn't seem to be a problem for most people.
(By the way, I'm using this level to loosely call "average" based on the 8 or 9 months of pretty "normal" weather and conditions since the blue algae crisis of the summer of 2019--I could well update this again....).

I've decided to come back and update this post regarding levels periodically--regarding hazards in general, and this bridge does provide the best "calibrated" measuring spot for me.

North of the Magnolia "blue" bridge, the bridges are pretty easy--Esplanade---just line up with the girders as you pass under. Then Desaix, which is easy clearance, then the train bridge--which can be tight, but just pay attention and you'll be fine, and then the two spans of I-610. North of that, Harrison, Mirabeau and Filmore are typically pretty easy clearance, though sometimes I'll scrape a paddle stroke if I'm not paying attention. Then, you get to Robert E Lee, with the beautiful Greek Orthodox Church on the right. You can sometimes pass under Robert E Lee, but it's usually pretty tight going under, especially in a sit-in kayak (lying flat in a canoe or sit-on kayak may be easier) so I make this spot my turn-around. If you do squeeze under Robert E Lee, the bayou narrows again, and you can paddle up to the new flood gate a short distance north. I've never seen this gate open, but theoretically, you could paddle right out to the lake from here. If levels are low enough, it's probably worth passing under and exploring a little more. The bridges at Robert E Lee Blvd are solid slabs, so you have stay bent over the whole time you pass under. Also note that during the invasive plant and algae issues of 2019, control booms were laid out across the bayou north of these bridges, and they appeared to remain in place for months afterwards (they may actually still be in place a year later).
paddle bayou st john
My GoPro snapping a shot from under the train bridge, looking at the I-610 bridge.

There is also a bridge on the back side of Demourelles Island, and it's very easy to pass under.

Here's my one big warning about Bayou St. John:
Probably one of the biggest dangers of paddling Bayou St John is the sloping, concrete banks along much of its length. The shores of the bayou change as you follow its length, but much of it is gently sloping concrete that looks very inviting as a place to step to get into or out of your kayak or canoe. BUT BE VERY CAREFUL: this concrete is usually coated with algae at some point below the water line. This algae is hard to see through the water, and I've seen many people slip and get scraped on this. And it's like ice: Once you're on it, it's hard to find your grip to recover. Look for a spot where you can plant a foot on grass (this is easier or harder depending on water levels), or put down a large towel, though it'll probably slip and move. Near the Dumaine St bridge, and along Wisner Blvd north of I-610, you have a natural, grassy environment from which you can launch, if you don't mind wading into shallow water--just watch for rocks, logs and broken bottles.

Launch spots:
Parking is available along Wisner, and a lot of people launch from the soft banks of the bayou there. I have found a reasonably good spot just north of Filmore. I see people launch just north of Harrison also. You'll just have to pick and chose between slippery or muddy spots, rough rocks, and debris and broken glass along Wisner. A very popular spot is across from the LSU School of Dentistry, just south of I-610, where Moss St curves into Florida Ave. There is a large grass field here, and this is the spot of Bayou Paddlesports (boat rental). As of this writing (July 2016), this is public land and people just pull up on the grass and launch, leaving their cars there. I have not heard of any ticketing or any sort of problems with this habit. Bayou Paddlesports has a wooden dock here, and usually has green carpet covering some of the slippery concrete bank. Even though this business uses this spot, it is public property, and non-customers park and launch from this spot. Rhonda and her folks at Bayou Paddlesports are super cool and friendly, but remember, she pays for the port-o-let and keeps the area clean and safe, so give a smile and ask before taking advantage of her facilities. **2020 update: very recently, I've been hearing reports of car break-ins here. Sometimes this launch spot is very crowded and active, and sometimes it's empty and isolated.

kayak bayou st john
Personally, except when I'm using my surfski,  I park on Moss St, just off of Carrollton Ave, sort of kitty corner to the southeast corner of City Park. Along this stretch of Moss, from Carrollton to Orleans, there is roadside parking, and the bayou is pretty accessible--either with a sloping cement "bank", or a natural, "wade in and launch" bank, or a "dock style" concrete edge.
kayak bayou st john
This(above) is on the lake side (north) of  the Dumaine St bridge. This is where I launch my surf ski (with a non-retractable rudder). This spot is a little farther from the street (to carry your boat), but is really nice if you don't mind launching in a few inches of water. It's perfect for boats with fixed rudders or less durable finishes. In this spot, if you're not standing in at least 6 or 8 inches of water, you may want to watch for the occasional hazard as you paddle up and down the bayou. If the water is overlapping the grass, be concerned about passing under the Magnolia Bridge. There is a similar spot just on the south side of the Dumaine bridge. This is a popular hangout area, and parking is less available.

paddle bayou st john

The above picture is where I typically launch my sea kayak, between Carrollton Ave and the Magnolia Bridge.

Gators? Well, yes, it's not unheard of to see alligators on the bayou. They're typically fairly small--I don't think I've seen anything 5' or bigger in a few years. Still, you may not want your small dog playing in the water.
kayak bayou st john
I haven't seen this guy in a while. He was quite used to people, and didn't seem bothered when I coasted up   (I really didn't want to see the little duckies get eaten). I got within 10 feet before he went on his way.

The bayou is also home to several festivals each year--Bayou Boogaloo, Earth Day, the Krewe of Kolossos 4th of July Flotilla, and other FREE festivals, take place at the southern end--near Orleans Ave. And Greek Fest takes place each spring/summer at the Greek Orthodox church at Robert E Lee.
kayak and canoe parade bayou st john

I spend so much time working out and zoning out on this calm, peaceful bayou, that I get a real kick out of seeing it transformed into part of the festival "grounds" during Bayou Boogaloo and the 4th of July "boat parade." Kayak and stand up board rentals are typically available for both of these events.

Finally, here are some local kayak and board rental options that launch on the bayou:
For stand-up paddle board rentals, with on-the-water lessons, visit Jeff at:
Jeff has a retail store and launch spot on Lake Pontchartrain, but I see him leading small groups on the bayou all the time.

For guided tours in nice recreational sit-in kayaks, visit Sarah and Sonny at:
By the way, Sarah and Sonny do tours in other areas, and they do bayou clean ups after the big festivals, and they're just all-around good people.

And, for very easy, paddling, Bayou Paddlesports has recreational sit-on-top kayaks, some tandems, and paddle boards. They're typically open Thursday through Monday, plus some special events, and they're located right at the launch spot at Florida Ave, next to I-610, that I mentioned earlier. Check them out at:


  1. thanks! you have the best info I have found on paddling here

  2. Your posts are enormously helpful, just moved to Nola from NYC where I paddled with small groups up and down the Hudson and twice around Manhattan. Can't wait to get out on the water here.

    1. Thank you Bill, I'm glad it's useful! I have one or two paddling friends who've spent time up there. By the way, I also have a Facebook group for paddling--it's an open group, not a club---just a place to post/answer questions, share info, try to get groups together, etc:

      Maybe I'll see you on the water!