When Hurricane Rita neared the Gulf Coast just weeks after devastating Katrina passed through in September 2005, a nation tensely marked her progress. As its howling path of destruction veered neatly in between previously devastated New Orleans on the east and Houston on the west, the country heaved with a sigh of relief. The general public perception, however, masks the reality of the destruction Rita left behind.
Although the storm swath cut through a more rural segment of Louisiana, it wrought incredible devastation. Many small towns, such as Holly Beach, a resort community on the Gulf of Mexico, were completely leveled. Today, lonely stilts that once supported beach houses now poke haphazardly from the sand, and concrete foundations mark the sites of other nearby dwellings, but walls and roofs are gone, swept away by the raging surf that accompanied Rita’s gale.
Miles from the beach, the surge washed out roads, leveled power lines, shattered windows, and flooded vehicles. Anything that could float – old tires, barrels, wooden decks and more – was carried inland and dropped. Along with human inhabitants, nature suffered as well. One local report described an alligator stranded in the branches of a towering oak tree.
Last summer, less than a year after Rita’s rampage, we visited Lake Charles and the Creole Nature Trail, a looping 180-mile byway that reportedly showcases the area’s scenery and wildlife. After the hurricane, the byway had, quite literally, been blown away. However, before leaving we heard good news: The region had begun to recover and was doing so at an amazing pace. During our visit, despite some inconveniences, we were given the chance to witness nature’s incredible revival in Creole country.
Before heading out on the “Trail,” we decided to swing through nearby Sam Houston Jones State Park. To get there from I-10, steer north onto highway LA 378. A short drive leads to a sign marking the Sam Houston Jones Parkway, gateway to the park.
Although Rita buffeted the state park, we were immediately struck by how many visitor services had already been restored. All 18 campsites (tent only) were available for use. Cabins stood ready for occupation in a shady hardwood forest. A boat filled with chattering sightseers set out from a launch on the West Fork of the Calcasieu River. Where were they headed? A quick survey of the park’s literature showed a host of destinations. Perhaps they were motoring up-river for a leisurely excursion, or planning to fish. Maybe their prow was ultimately pointed toward the Gulf of Mexico, just a few miles away.
We had planned to hike the old stagecoach trail that wound along several tributaries of the Calcasieu River. What I had not anticipated was the park’s appeal to my naturalist/photographer side. Not far from the riverbank, a whitetail doe peered curiously from the underbrush. A multi-colored butterfly fluttered gorgeously around the blossoms. In a flooded lagoon, dusky tree trunks emerged from the water to rise into a tangled canopy of moss and branches that block the sunlight, but for a few errant rays that appear like tiny spotlights. The pond’s surface was as polished glass, perfectly mirroring the intricate lines and patterns of bark and trunks.
Daybreak the next morning found us humming down Highway 27, the National Scenic Byway of the Creole Nature Trail. Our first stop came at the headquarters of the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. “Headquarters” was actually now a small encampment of trailers that were moved to the refuge after the storm. This refuge had borne the brunt of Rita’s wrath, but Sabine staff and national emergency workers were carrying on the Herculean task of removing debris and restoring visitor services.
BIRDS AND BEASTS
Refuge staff members warned that the wildlife was still suffering from the storm’s aftermath. However, once in the park, there were a myriad wildlife viewing opportunities. A great egret waded in a shallow waterway along the road. Just beyond the egret, a sprightly pair of black-necked stilts with pointed bills probed a mud-flat for insects. Another hour of quiet and patient observation yielded dozens of bird sightings; many of the species I had previously only seen in the pages of my tattered field guide.
There was the short and compact tri-colored heron perched, on an overgrown branch jutting from the stump of a long-dead tree. A foot-high, purplish bird with huge feet and a reddish bill turned out to be a purple gallinule – its long, spreading toes acting as a support platform so it can walk easily over floating vegetation without sinking. While I attempted to photograph a small and unknown orange bird with black markings, a resting flock of roseate spoonbills startled into flight. For a few moments, their white necks and bold pinkish-red wings swirled against the blue sky above the marsh.
About mid-day, our paths crossed something other than birds busy at a lagoon near the roadway. A father and his two children were tossing something into the water on the end of a length of light rope. We rolled in behind the young family of three and struck up a conversation. It took all of two minutes to understand the “how-to” of crabbing and even less time to see it was fun for the kids.
The kids baited their lines with chicken necks (from the butcher shop) and other “delicacies” to entice the crabs. When a crab took the bait, the line dipped in the water, alerting the children. Next they slowly pulled the line toward the bank. Clinging to the bait was a hefty blue crab. With a flick of the wrist, Dad slipped a net under the clawed critter and brought it to shore. After a thorough inspection, the crab was approved and found a new residence with several others in a large metal washtub
Afternoon was upon us by the time we reached Holly Beach. Marveling soberly at nature’s awesome power, my gaze fell upon bare foundations and twisted pylons that had once anchored houses to the beachfront. Lost in thought, I wandered alone down the seashore for a look around. Despite the recent devastation, this is a beautiful and intriguing place. Out on the water, a shrimp boat pulled its nets patiently through the sea. Gulls scuttled on the sand before breaking waves, each looking for a tidbit washed up on shore.
Nearly stepping on a perfect seashell decorated in bluish hues with rusty highlights, I plucked this singular momento – aside from the dozens of photographs – from our exploration of The Creole Nature Trail. Resisting the temptation to fill my pockets, I wondered how many buckets of wonderful shells lay before me on Holly Beach.
Although we had seen a few small ‘gators, they had shyly remained out of camera range. Near the headquarters of Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge on the Nature Trail’s eastern side, my fortunes changed. A dozen mid-sized gators wallowed in a lagoon close to the headquarters building. After capturing dozens of images (from a distance, of course), a refuge staff member informed me that this lagoon was one of the most reliable spots in the area to find an alligator.
As much as we hated to leave the Trail, the end of the trip had to come. Rolling back to Lake Charles, I counted the reasons for a return visit: Fishing, crabbing and beachcombing topped the list, the bird life is fantastic, and who doesn’t love the sight of a toothy alligator?
Despite some inconveniences during the continuing hurricane cleanup, we were witnesses to a vibrant comeback already in progress. You don’t want to miss this Southern revival.
Early one morning in Lake Charles, I met Captain Sammie Faulk on the dock of the L’Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino on the Calcasieu River. With two other anglers in tow, we cranked up his boat and turned down river. Puffy stacks of billowing white clouds towered in a hazy blue sky above the water, remnants of the previous day’s rainstorm. Along the bank, a great blue heron peered intently into the brackish water, patiently waiting for breakfast. Overhead, a stately snowy egret glided along the same course as the boat, then banked away on white, spreading wings as we passed below.
Five minutes into the ride, Captain cut the motor. Jarred from my scenic revelry, it took several moments to recompose as an angler. After instructing the others, he thrust a rod my way. “Cast out from the boat, then twitch the jig back in a jerky motion,” Captain advised.
Enthusiastically I launched my first case. Halfway into the retrieve it hit me that this boy from Montana had no idea what we were fishing for. “Floundering specks of drum” came the answer, but it seemed more a word-jumble of fisherman’s jargon than a description of any particular species.
Less than an hour later, the garbled phrase made perfect sense. First, another angler caught a smooth-looking fish the Captain called a drum. Soon I hooked something. “Looks like a nice speck,” the captain observed as I brought my catch near the boat. Spots adorned the speckled trout’s streamlined body.
Moving to a different location, the last piece of my word puzzle dropped into place. Casting toward a pile of twiggy debris near shore, a fellow angler hooked into the lip of a flat, nearly disk-shaped fish – a flounder. The day’s action was nearly non-stop, and we came across a variety of fish.
On the return to the dock, I asked Captain Sammie how the hurricane had affected the fishing. “That’s been one bright spot,” he smiled. “Those big storms kind of stir things up, which seems to improve the fishing. I’d say this is the best season we’ve had in a long time.”
BEFORE YOU GO
For a list of top-rated tent and RV campgrounds in the region, go to woodalls.com. The status of visitor services along the Creole Nature Trail changes as clean up and rebuilding continues. Initial contact with the Lake Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau (/visitlakecharles.org/; 800/456-SWLA) can provide numerous resources for camping, state park information and other area attractions. To book a fishing trip with Captain Sammie Faulk, contact Gotta Go Charters at 337/477-7584.