Lake Pontchartrain The sky above Lake Pontchartrain, when the summer sun is taking its last breath for the day, is our very own box of crayons. Pinks next to purples. Teals next to deep reds. Wispy whites hugging the clouds’ silver lining. It’s cotton candy that only our pupils can taste. Covering more than 600 square miles and touching parts of six parishes (Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany, St. John the Baptist, St. Charles and Tangipahoa for those scoring at home), Lake Pontchartrain is arguably the most popular inland watery playground. Whether it’s sailing, fishing or sipping something cold on the patio of New Orleans’ Southern Yacht Club, Lake Pontchartrain is the perfect setting for all of that and more. The southern shore of the lake frames the Lakeview and Gentilly neighborhoods of New Orleans while the upper shores touch the southernmost portions of the Northshore — Mandeville and Slidell, specifically.
In South Louisiana, there is a complicated duality in our waterways, a bit of a give-and-take that’s not always easy to understand.
On one hand, they sustain us — twisting, winding economic pistons that shimmer when the sun goes to sleep. On the other, they make us scatter, intruding (albeit with warning) on our way of life and the literal shape of our region. On a spring weekend, Louisiana’s waterways are a welcome escape from the innocuous fluorescent-light din of Corporate America. On an insufferable late summer evening, those same waterways are unwelcome guests, as we all stay glued to the TV storm trackers.
In the Sportsman’s Paradise, we revel in the natural splendor and raw untamed power of these vital fresh- and salt-water neighbors.
The Bonnet Carre Spillway
The man-made majesty of The Bonnet Carre Spillway, constructed in 1931, is both awe-inspiring and essential to the well being of South Louisiana. Nestled 12 miles west of New Orleans, the flood control operation diverts excess water from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain. With that said, the Spillway — as far as a flood control device — usually remains non-operational. In fact, officials opened the Spillway for just the 11th time in history in January of 2016, after downpours in states like Illinois and Missouri swelled the water level of the river. Initially, the Corps of Engineers opened 20 bays of the Spillway, allowing 12,000 cubic feet of water to pass through per second.
Lake Pontchartrain at Breakwater Park
Breakwater Park in New Orleans is like a peninsula jetting out from another peninsula; a topographical anomaly easily submerged during massive storms, producing pastel sunsets worthy of a breakroom motivational poster when it’s nice out. Those that come out with a picnic in tow are often treated to locals fishing the fertile waters and sailboats racing off in the distance. Later that same evening, the stars above put on their own show.
A strong-armed pebble throw from Lakeshore Drive, Breakwater Park truly comes to life on summer Saturdays and Sundays as it’s the perfect spot for recreation and relaxation.
For both recreational and commercial boating, Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish is a popular launch point and a key artery for Louisiana’s renowned seafood industry. Because of its geography, Shell Beach has often been on the front lines of violent weather. In the decade since Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita deliverd a punch to the region, the resilience of the natural landscape and the dependence of Louisianans on the bounty found in the waters at Shell Beach has become clear.
Hurricane Katrina Memorial
A haunting morning fog from Mother Nature casts a fitting sense of reverence on this sacred spot, as pelicans perch near the Katrina Memorial at Shell Beach. Beside this iron cross with the face of Jesus attached are the names of everyone from St. Bernard Parish who died in the storm.
On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina engulfed South Louisiana, fluctuating between a weak Category 4 and strong Category 3 storm upon landfall. Winds of roughly 125 miles per hour overwhelmed communities like Buras and Port Sulphur near the tip of the boot. Twelve-foot storm surges coupled with 8 to 10 inches of rain compromised the integrity of dozens of levees as damage estimates creeped into the tens of billions. More than 900,000 Louisiana residences lost power. In St. Bernard Parish, 81 percent of the houses were severely damaged, according to government reports. Major levee failures in New Orleans left 80 percent of the city flooded and made the Interestate-10 Twin Span unpassable.
At times, the images of Lake Martin appear to be lifted from a Hollywood set or an accomplished illustrator’s canvas — the quintessential Cajun swamp scene. Alligators stalk the mostly silent waters. Snakes tangle around tree branches and occasionally dangle from them. Bullfrogs, gluttonous mosquitos and other critters conduct an unwritten symphony that, at all hours of the night, reminds us that this lake is alive.
Protected by the Nature Conservatory, Lake Martin stretches through the heart of Acadiana and is the setting for some of the best bird watching anywhere in the world. White ibis. Snowy egret. Tricolored heron. They’re all here and all accessible via pirogue or while walking along a 2.5-mile levee trail that’s open most of the year.