Bay St Louis to Metaire

Day 10
March 27
Bay St. Louis to Metaire
Sunny and 75F as we drove away from the Casino complex – none the richer, but only $4 poorer.  We were headed back to the Pascagoula (a Chocktaw word meaning bread making) River for a boat tour of the bayous and river itself.  Mark LaSalle had arranged for us to take this tour and we welcomed the chance to get on the water and see this landscape – which is SO much water – with a fresh perspective.  The boat was a flatbottomed, aluminum craft with an awning and benches that faced out on either side.  It was completely full with other adults and some homeschooled kids and their parents.  ‘Beanie’ McCoy was the captain of this boat, a middle aged man with a lifetime of experiences on the river and its backwaters. 
For two hours he shared his knowledge and enthusiasm of this land and waterscape with us.  Mike and I were at the back of the boat and the only passengers with binoculars. 
The Pascagoula is a tidal river with brackish water.  Popular with fishermen because they can catch both freshwater and saltwater fish – for example, catfish or flounder.  He told us about one fisherman he saw earlier in the day who he said had a tug of war with an alligator over a catfish that was on his line.  I’m not positive if he was pulling our leg or not, but he said it happens.  Then he showed us a bar of soap that they use to catch the fish. He said some people use Dial, but he had a bar made in Mexico that works much better.  They cut it into lots of pieces and put it on the line.  We were dumbfounded, but he said, if you look at the label you’ll see that it’s about 60% fat.  He also told us they catch mullet, known locally as Biloxi bacon. Served for breakfasts during the Depression years as ‘fish and grits’.  
On either side of the boat we passed acres of sawgrass, juncus (a genus of rush), and blue flag irises. One of the most surprising pieces of information we learned was about the wild rice that grows in this river.  What? I thought we northern Minnesotan’s were the only ones who could claim that plant. But no, there is wild rice down here, close to the Gulf.  We were told that they rarely are able to harvest any though, because the red-wing blackbirds get it all before the humans can.
 Soon after we got under way Beanie started commenting on the amount of water in the river.  The tide was coming in, but it is never very big, most of the water that was causing the rise was from the recent rainstorms – flowing into the Pascagoula from other streams and tributaries. This high water would have a big impact on what we saw (or didn’t see), because there was little dry land for alligators to haul themselves out onto.  Near the end of the trip, he pushed the nose of the boat into some of the tall vegetation where he knew an alligator had a nest.  Sure enough, we got to see three of the babies – each about 12 inches long, with a brown and yellow banded pattern to help camouflage them.  We didn’t see mama, but Beanie was sure she was around somewhere.  He assured us there were more babies around too – possibly close to 30 of them – but they were hiding out in the grasses.
Most the passengers were hoping to see alligators of course, but Mike and I were happy just being out on the water and seeing new habitat.  Somebody spotted a snake swimming away from the boat – it was a small one, a water snake of some sort.  Beanie said that when he was a kid there were Lots of snakes on this river, now he hardly sees any.  An osprey was sighted flying off to the left and Beanie let us know we’d be passing by several nests.  The next one we saw was perched in a tree close to the water with a fish under one foot.  It wasn’t comfortable with us coming so close so it took off and found a better spot to have its meal.  There were several old osprey nests balanced precariously at the top of some dead trees, but the most interesting one was built on the top of a tree that had tilted out over the river, so that it was only 10 feet above the stream.  We have Never seen an osprey nest so low.  There was one adult in the nest and another perched in a nearby tree.  
The most disturbing news Beanie shared with us had to do with the marsh wrens.  He told  us how there used to be thousands of these small, melodic birds and their neat little nests built on the leaves of the grasses, but since Katrina there are none, even though the plants are still there.  No one seems to have an answer to their disappearance.   
There are a species of snail found in these marshes that are indicators of the water’s health.  They are also a key species on the food chain of the other animals that live in these waters, especially the blue crabs.  The marsh really is a nursery for a great deal of seafood. 
Our boat trip would take us into backwater bayous (another Choctaw word meaning slow moving water). One was called Whiskey Bayou and he said there might still be some stills back in there.  He told us to keep our eyes out for wild hogs, which are a serious invasive species.  Even with a hunting season, they can’t get them under control.  Sounds like our whitetail deer.  They really create havoc with the vegetation in the marsh.
As we made our loop back, we entered Buzzard Lake, and oxbow lake where people can get permits to park their houseboats.  They’re only accessible by boat, but are used one weekends by fishermen.  The southern version of our ice houses.  When I told Beanie this he said, “I’ve always wanted to try that.”
Coming back onto the river we were shown a place where the river has changed directions, post Katrina. The storm took down a bunch of trees and gradually the land has been eroded away, taking the river in new direction.  This is what rivers do, when they are not under the control of us humans. 
We returned to the dock near the Audubon Center’s office and thanked our knowledgeable guide for the introduction to his world.  Then it was back on the road towards New Orleans, where we had lunch at Nonna Mia’s Café and Pizzeria in a neighborhood called mid-city.  It had narrow streets with wooden sided houses placed close to one another.  The restaurant itself was an old home converted into an eating establishment.  In the pleasantly warm, but not too humid weather we sat on the brick patio, where Mike ordered and enjoyed a margherita pizza and I had lobster ravioli – also excellent.  Looking around us it was hard to tell that six years ago this city was inundated by flood waters.  There are still places where you can see places boarded up and empty, but others seemed to have either escaped the worst of the water damage or have managed to rebound quickly.
  

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