You don’t necessarily think of Louisiana and eco-tours as being synonymous. But it turns out Lake Charles, just 30 miles from the Gulf Coast, on the west side of the state near Texas, is a major route for migrating birds in spring and fall.
We’re talking thousands of birds. Hundreds of species. So close, you can actually photograph them without having to heft a back breaking, multi-thousand dollar telephoto lens.
And don’t forget the alligators, maybe the area’s number one draw. Four and five foot (and larger) gators, seriously up close and personal.
Plus, there’s this incredible fishing. But more about fish...and painting fish...later.
Birding in the Lake Charles area is a bit of a secret outside Louisiana.
“It’s unknown, really. It’s not been heavily promoted,” said Dave Patton of the local Audubon Society. “But those people who do know about the birds in this area treasure it.”
There are many ways to see the birds ... hiking on a boardwalk, driving a three mile loop, taking various tours.
I tried them all but what I really loved was the tours. These folks know what they are doing. They know where to go. They’ve got the equipment (namely the boat). Yes, my best gator encounter was on a road but for birds, nothing quite beats nosing around a marshland or bayou in a boat, looking for nests and crowds of wings.
Okay, folks here don’t think it’s strange that an oil company runs eco-tours on reclaimed wetlands, but for outsiders, this is a fascinating look at coexistence. Sweet Lake Land and Oil built a dike around 484 acres of marsh to keep it flooded year around. And now, it’s home to nearly 500 species of birds who massively come through each spring and fall.
The company first created the permanent wetland so they could stock it for bass fishing. It’s strictly catch and release here, with folks sometimes snagging 50, even 100 fish on a trip. But a few years ago, the company decided to add eco tours for the birders, said manager Bobby Jordan.
We went out with the company’s Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours in a flat-bottomed, open boat that could easily skim through the water lilies and grass to nose up close to birds and nests.
In fall, you get tons of birds in the trees. In spring, there’s the added nests and the babies with tufts of feathers and open mouths. We eased our boat in to inspect a nest with eggs almost close enough to touch. For nests with hatched babies, you keep more distance, but not so far that you can’t get a shot with your cell phone.
The birds in the trees were amazing. We’d float by and see half a dozen cattle egrets sitting on branches, orange breeding tufts clearly visible on their heads. And the huge ibis were stunning. You don’t realize how large they are until you are near one and it stretches out its wings.
But for up close gators, nothing quite beats Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. Pintail Wildlife Drive has a half mile boardwalk where we could photograph blooming water lilies at our leisure along with one curious gator who swam right up to where we stood. Even better was the three mile gravel loop drive. You can’t hike or bicycle it, for safety reasons that soon became obvious, but in a car, you can still get close enough to alligators to photograph their eyeballs.
We stopped to watch one six footer as he stretched out in the sunlight. He slowly opened his mouth, which is a gator’s way of regulating heat. And we all got a LOT of pictures.
“Gators are our number one draw,” said Anne Klenke of the Lake Charles CVB. “There are few other places you can get so close and see them so often.”
I grew up in south Florida and used to bicycle in the Everglades and never saw an alligator out of the water so close.
There’s also swamp tours. On a previous trip, I went out with Jimmy Miller down a local bayou and into the Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge where we saw anhingas, cormorants, bald eagles and yes, an alligator Jimmy has named Lollypop. Man, those critters go fast when they want to.
And then, there’s the fishing. But first, the fish painting.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a place quite like Arts’ Desire in Lake Charles. The idea is to play with art, kind of like you might have done in elementary school. You can paint a scarf, make pottery, design your own jewelry.
And, best of all, the fish. Owner and resident artist Raejean Clark-German uses real fish, which she conveniently stores in a freezer. The thawed fish is wiped down, then painted (the brighter the colors, the better), pressed onto paper, a board or ceramic platter, then the fish is peeled off.
What remains is a form of Japanese art called gyotaku that looks somewhat like it’s been stenciled on.
As for the fishing ... sadly, a ferocious storm canceled our scheduled trip, but here’s what we learned:
Folks fish seven lakes in the Lake Charles area, all connected by channels, and dozens of fish guiding services. Many guide services have lodges as well as guided trips.
For light tackle salt water fishing, Big Lake Guide Service fishes Calcasieu Lake with 10# test line. The average trip is eight hours and on an average day, three people can come back with 40 fish. Or more.
“It’s brackish or salt water, depending on the time of year and you can fish year round all the way to Lake Charles, clear up to the casinos,” said Big Lake owner Jeff Poe.
“The redfish are sometimes so thick, you can’t get away from them. And there are days the baitfish cover the water like a blanket.”
They use lures rather than live bait because, “Heck otherwise we’d hit our limit in an hour,” he added.
So what do folks do with all that fish?
“They drive in with coolers, take it home, smoke it, freeze it or, I guess, feed the neighborhood,” Poe said.
Poe’s service will clean the fish, bag it or if people fly in, freeze it for travel.
Locals swear what Poe claims is no exaggeration.
As we drove from Poe’s lodge, I was already calculating how much it would cost to bring my son and his family from Atlanta, a nine hour drive away.
Cajun food isn’t something you do in a fancy sit-down restaurant. It’s by the side of the road during a parade, in a bar, under a tent, in a community center, in a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe.
Just about anywhere along the Louisiana Gulf coast you’ll find it.
Sure, it’s not on anyone’s weight loss diet list. But, oh my, it IS irresistible.
At Guillory’s Famous Foods in Lake Charles, Louisiana, my friends and I learned about cracklins.
Darby Guillory took us to his back room where a mammoth vat of hog fat bubbled.
Cracklins are fried fat back. It comes from around the pig’s mid-section and includes the skin, some fat and if it’s quality cracklin, some meat. Darby had cut it into one-inch cubes, which floated in the vat until he fished them out with a slotted ladle, then had his wife sprinkle on seasonings.
The secret, Darby said, “You’ve gotta eat them fresh and hot.”
Think bacon. No, think super bacon. No, think of what a million or so years of evolutionary attraction to fat and salt have done to your willpower. Don't even try to fight it.
Cracklins, Darby admonished, are eaten on the spot, in the car, on the way home. But not, absolutely not, hours later when they’re fossilized, if you value your teeth. http://guillorysfamousfoods.com/
For full Creole immersion there’s the SW Louisiana Boudin Trail with more than two dozen stops that wander through two parishes (counties) and range from convenience stores to cafes. Few of these places have websites but many do have Facebook pages.
LeBleu’s Landing is a family owned Cajun meat market and cafe. Owners Kevin and Shelley Downs prefer their Boudin (rice, ground pork, onions, celery and a family secret blend of spices in sausage casing) without liver, which many others do include. Think dirty rice in a handy, chewable tube and you get the idea. http://www.lebleuslanding.com/
Jeff Benoit is the third generation to run B&O Kitchen & Grocery where the offerings run the gamut from gator, jerky, cracklins, stuffed chickens, hog head cheese and, of course, Boudin (pronounce it boo-dan).
Local hunters come from all over to have their catch processed. He keeps a file with folks’ sausage preferences.
But the star of B&O is the Gaudidoun Burger. A mile high presentation of BBQ pulled pork or beef brisket, Boudin balls, and fixins’ (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle). https://www.facebook.com/BO-Kitchen-and-Grocery-171012087541/
And there are many more of these tiny roadside stops where you will find just about any Cajun finger food you desire.
But what IS Cajun food? At one point in our wanderings, we talked to Al Kuhlman at the Forest Inn in Franklin, LA.
Canadian, Creole and French roots all combine in Cajun food, Al explained, adding that gumbo is the star.
At the heart of gumbo is a proper roux, which is basically hot oil and flour.
“You have to know how long to leave it cooking so it won’t taste burnt,” Al explained. Then, to this base (and everyone has their own version) you add the “trinity” of onions, bell peppers and celery, then the sausage or chicken or shrimp.
It’s less than a stew, more than a soup and the kind of spicy that makes your tongue shiver. http://forestrestaurantfranklin.com/
And much later, in Houma, LA, at Big Al’s Seafood, there were crawdads.
But first, the fried pickles. Everyone should try batter fried pickles at least once. It’s crunch and tang and of course, that instinctive gut craving for anything fried.
I passed on the grilled fish. Y’all don’t do grilled anything on a southern Louisiana vacation.
But after a week of fried catfish and fried gator and fried shrimp interspersed with sausage and Boudin, I was ready for boiled crawdads. These things look like tiny versions of the lobsters that are their relatives. At Big Al’s you order ’em by the two pound platter.
Yeah, the idea is to share with the table. But my travel buddies were exuberantly forking into their grilled fish, so I had the entire tray to myself.
There’s a method, the helpful waitress with a honey accent explained.
Pinch off the head, suck out the juices (but don’t eat that feathery stuff which she helpfully warned “Tastes like poop.”
Thus fortified with a mouthful of spicy heaven, it’s time to get to the real job. Pinch that tiny tail and hope the shell peels off. You will then be rewarded with a microscopic shard of the most wonderful tasting stuff.
Maybe I should have collected a bunch to get a real mouthful but I was too zombified by that week of fried eating, so I methodically did them one by one by ... you get the idea. http://bigalsseafood.com/
The Lake Charles, LA, area in SW Louisiana is on the path of all five routes for migrating birds. Bird viewing is best March through May and August through October.
For fishermen, flounder runs usually also happen in spring and fall.
And brand new in the area, the Catch And Cook program. You can now take your catch to participating restaurants and have it cooked for you by a top chef.
Your first stop should be the Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point office just south of I-10 at exit 20. There are four wildlife refuges in the area managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They offer bird watching, boardwalks, loop drives, docks to launch boats, fishing, crabbing, duck hunting and more. Plan on a day to do the Creole Nature Trail main loop and another day for side trails that will take you to Rutherford Beach and other eco areas. And for fishing or crabbing, still another day.
* Lake Charles - http://www.visitlakecharles.org
* Creole Nature Trail Adventure Point - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/adventurepoint
* Creole Nature Trail - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/creole-nature-trail/
* Cameron Parish nature - http://cameronparishtouristcommission.org/listing/pintail-wildlife-drive * Grosse Savanne Eco Tours - http://www.grossesavanne-ecotours.com/
* Swamp tour - Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tour - http://www.annie-miller.com/
* Arts’ Desire - http://artsdesirelc.com
* SW Louisiana Boudin Trail - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/boudintrail
* Catch & Cook program two restaurants: Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp - http://tiajuanitasfishcamp.com/ and Jack Daniels Bar & Grill - http://www.llakecharles.com/dining/jack-daniel-s-bar-and-grill/
OTHER LAKE CHARLES AREA ACTIVITIES:
* Tour Lake Charles historic district via horse carriage (One of the finest collections of Victorian architecture in the state, dating from the late 1800s). J& R Carriage - http://www.facebook.com/JR-Carriage-144726940521/
* Brimstone Museum for fascinating history of sulphur in the area - http://www.brimstonemuseum.org/
* Mardi Gras Museum with hundreds of elaborate Krewe (crew) royalty costumes - http://www.visitlakecharles.org/swlamardigras/mardi-gras-museum/
* Contraband Days - Held during the first two weeks of May, is the city's official celebration of the legend of the pirate Jean Lafitte. http://www.visitlakecharles.org/events-festivals/contraband-days/
Lake Charles Photo Diary: https://goo.gl/photos/Mjw7repreqpLVUQo6
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