A Day in the Life
By: Kylie Campbell and James Puckett
We have spent the past two months at southern refuges where the water moves slow, alligators bask in the hot sun, and the local communities abound with food, culture, and hospitality. We’ve spent lots of time with a paddle in hand, exploring big lakes, bayous, and backcountry trails. Read on to learn about four unique refuges that share many common species.
Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR
The unique habitat at Sam D. Hamilton Noxubee NWR was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s. As we serve with AmeriCorps, it has been inspiring to see how the hard work of the CCC men is still enjoyed today. We are proud to follow in their footsteps as we positively impact natural places for future generations. The CCC built dikes and dug out the low lying areas to create two lakes that are now home to many wading birds. Throughout history, refuge staff introduced various species into these reservoirs, including beavers. The beavers quickly became a nuisance and the refuge decided to control the population with alligators. This was eventually effective in reducing the population, despite some troubles bringing the alligators to the refuge (the airline used to transport them only allowed 7 foot long containers, and the alligators arrived at the airport in 7.5 foot long containers). Today, there are an estimated 200 alligators that occupy the refuge. Alligators are rare this far north in Mississippi and they are quite an attraction for visitors. We enjoyed helping visitors find the gators and taught many little kids the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.
Another unique aspect of this refuge was the wide range of users that visit. The most common visitors were college students from nearby Mississippi State University, who came there to relax in a hammock or study by the lake. Other users frequently fish at the refuge and depend on this food source to feed their families. It was exciting to see how groups from vastly different backgrounds could come together and use the refuge in harmony.
On our days off, we enjoyed kayaking around Bluff Lake, although it took some convincing for Kylie to believe that the gators really wouldn’t bother us. At the time there were prolific lily pads that prevented motor boats from using the lake, and even paddling through them on our kayaks was a challenge. Still, the flowers on the aquatic plants were beautiful and it is hard to think of them as invasive despite the problems they cause.
We were fortunate to be invited to a local community meeting by Steve Reagan, the project leader at the refuge. We were welcomed with open arms to a former church that had been renovated to hold these meetings. The community has met every single month since the 1920s and we loved joining them in this tradition. We enjoyed home cooked red beans and rice and learned about photography techniques from a professor at Mississippi State. We also met the former refuge manager, and it was great to see that former employees and volunteers of the refuge are still actively involved in preserving the refuge and its history.
Big Branch Marsh NWR
Next, our travels took us down to Louisiana. Our first refuge in the area was Big Branch Marsh NWR. This refuge reminded us of Noxubee NWR because of all the white banded pine trees, which ended up being common throughout our southern travels. We learned that these trees were marked because they contained nest cavities for endangered red cockaded woodpeckers. The refuge would actually install modified nests for these birds because new growth trees are not big enough for the birds to build their own nests in. The woodpeckers need old growth forest, which was all logged many years ago. These birds can commonly be seen on the Boy Scout Trail: most people use the area for peaceful exercise but some were searching for the red cockaded woodpeckers, binoculars in hand. While sitting in the parking lot one evening we were lucky to see at least five of these beautiful birds pecking away.
Big Branch Marsh NWR had multiple other habitats besides the pine forest. We did a guided kayak tour of Cane Bayou and the guide described that the two mile paddle through the refuge was like a snapshot of how habitats change as you travel south through Louisiana: we went through an oak forest to the cypress and pine forests and ended in the grassy salt marsh along Lake Pontrachain. The most popular area of the refuge was within this salt marsh habitat. People would park right along the road and crab from both sides. On a busy weekend up to 50 people would be lined up on the road crabbing. We purchased our own crabbing nets to try it out in our free time, after being convinced by visitors who were successful every day. We also encountered people fishing and duck hunting at this location. This was one of the first refuges that we’ve visited where the dominant uses were consumptive, and it was exciting to see how many people take advantage of the opportunities available.
When we weren’t sampling, we spent much of our time at the Southeast Louisiana Refuge Complex Headquarters. This building is located at Big Branch Marsh NWR in Lacombe, LA, and contains a visitor center as well as offices where staff for all eight refuges in the complex work. This was also the site of a big annual celebration called Wild Things. In the days leading up to the event it was truly an all hands on deck venture, and we helped alongside staff to prepare. Helping with these projects allowed us to form great relationships with staff and even refuge law enforcement. All the hard work paid off and the day of the event had perfect weather. Over 6,000 people came to the refuge to enjoy exhibits, boat tours, music, and crafts. There were numerous stations to teach kids the importance of wildlife all while having a fun experience.
Bayou Sauvage NWR
Next we traveled to Bayou Sauvage NWR, the second largest urban refuge in the United States. Bayou Sauvage is inside the city limits of New Orleans, and we got new perspectives into the challenges and opportunities that urban refuges are presented with. Kayaking was a recreational opportunity here; however, conflicts with wildlife discourage paddlers from the boat launch off Highway 11. Unfortunately, many visitors choose to feed alligators at this location and this results in some boldly curious gators. The big reptiles here come right to the dock when a visitor arrives, sometimes more than a dozen at a time. We informed people that if an officer was here they would be severely fined if caught feeding wildlife, and often joked with people about how junk food isn’t healthy for the gators just like it isn’t healthy for us. Sometimes people would stop, but usually visitors would continue as soon as we walked away. This behavior is frustrating because it could potentially cause the alligators to become more aggressive which could endanger visitors and the gators. However, people still enjoy fishing and kayaking on parts of the refuge where alligators were not as acclimated to humans.
Another challenge that this refuge faces is crime in the surrounding communities. Illegal dumping is a common theme throughout the entire city of New Orleans, and we often found trash and other evidence of criminal activity on refuge property. Abandoned or completely burned out cars are a frequent occurrence. To curtail some of the vandalism and other issues on the refuge, staff have installed video monitoring and even a few hidden cameras at recreation sites. Despite crime being a problem in the area, we had very positive interactions with visitors and, like all refuges, the majority of people are out to enjoy peaceful time in nature.
One wonderful aspect of our time in New Orleans was the Vietnamese community and their delicious food! There was a restaurant and bakery near the refuge called Dong Phoung, and they had the best four dollar sandwiches money could buy! We enjoyed lunch here during our sampling days. This vibrant, diverse community represented one of the awesome opportunities that urban refuges have to interact with new groups of visitors. We met people from all over the world who were visiting the city of New Orleans and included a hike at Bayou Sauvage NWR in their travels.
During our time off we really enjoyed exploring “the big easy”; we are rarely the type to enjoy a day in the city but we truly relished in our time in New Orleans and would love to go back. The French Quarter was quite touristy but we enjoyed embracing all it had to offer, from wonderful French beignets to fresh shrimp po’ boys. One of our favorite experiences was requesting songs at the famous Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar while we sipped on historic hurricane drinks.
From the slow moving bayous of Louisiana, we traveled next to the swampy waters of the “Land of the Trembling Earth”. We found very similar wildlife at Okefeneokee NWR as we’d seen at our previous three southern refuges, but this area had a completely different atmosphere. Here, the familiar pecking of red cockaded woodpeckers had plenty of room to echo: this refuge was the biggest one we’ve visited yet at over 400,000 acres. The vast majority of this refuge is designated as a National Wilderness Area which ensures that no development will take place there. This vast area draws visitors from all over the world to experience its unique charm.
The main activity that visitors engage in is taking boat rides out into the swamp: on the east side, the refuge has a private concessionaire to charter guided tour rides on the canals through the refuge. Also on the east side of the refuge was a wildlife drive, boardwalk, and even a homestead left by the last family to live in the Okefenokee swamp, the Chessers. On the west side, Stephen C. Foster State Park leases land from the refuge and offers boat tours from their facilities. At the state park, it was also popular for people to camp and stay in the cabins. Canoeing and hiking are popular on both parts of the refuge and we enjoyed spending our off time exploring the trails both on and off the water.
Okefenokee has over 120 miles of wilderness canoe trails. The wonderful thing about these water trails is that every few miles there are floating platforms or docks for overnight paddlers to pitch their tent on. Some people traveled for up to five days and four nights. We were fortunate to paddle six miles to one of these platforms and have our lunch within the wilderness of the swamp. We did get a laugh at the floating porta-john for visitors to use as they reached the two mile mark. We were thrilled to see baby gators as well as ten foot gators while paddling, as we were comfortable with them by the end of our time in swamp country.
This was the only refuge we had visited before our time working with ACE. Like many of the visitors that we sampled, we stopped to see the Okefenokee swamp as part of a long road trip to Florida a few years ago. We really enjoyed getting a behind the scenes look and a deeper understanding of a place that we loved as visitors. The volunteers here, as at any refuge, truly do make the refuge a better place to visit. We enjoyed getting to know the resident volunteers and we definitely aspire to live in an RV and volunteer along our travels like many of the volunteers that we’ve met.
We relished in the last bit of summer warmth before we travel to the midwest by running on the trails through the pine forest at Okefenokee. On a morning run, Kylie encountered a gopher tortoise on the trail. However, no one told him that tortoises are supposed to move slowly because the speedy fellow was on his way before she could capture a picture! After leaving Okefenokee, we traveled through the mountains of Georgia and Tennessee and enjoyed camping in the fall leaves on our way to our next refuge: Loess Bluffs NWR in Missouri!