In Madisonville, where the Highway 22 bridge crosses the Tchefuncte River, the bridge swings opens to let boat traffic through every half-hour on weekends. If you happen to “catch” the bridge while you’re driving, put down your smartphone and take a few moments to appreciate the Tchefuncte. Since its founding, Madisonville has been defined by this river; today its waterfront hosts restaurants, businesses, City Hall, a state park, construction sites and marinas.
Among people who know and frequent the Northshore, this may arguably be the most popular part of the river; among newcomers, it’s probably their introduction to the historic waterway. It is here that hopeful fishermen launch their boats in the early morning hours, where water skiers gracefully skim the water and where the person who dared show up without a boat can enjoy still enjoy the view from underneath a shady tree.
A metaphor for change
But don’t let your bridge moment be the end of the experience. Insiders love the river for its peaceful beauty, which is often the first thing mentioned by river enthusiasts.
Mark Salvetti is a longtime Northshore resident and paddler. “The river’s really wide and pretty, and the cypress trees and the birds and everything make for a beautiful backdrop” while paddling, he says.
“In Madisonville,” he continues, “you can put in [the water] there along Water Street, have a paddle, sit in the shade of the oak trees, go have lunch … and hang out. It’s a beautiful place to hang out before, after and while you’re paddling.”
Indeed, Madisonville, picturesque with historic houses and Spanish moss, captures the eye and the heart. But only yards away, the trendy waterfront gives way to a vista of quiet, tree-lined banks. Gone is the hum-and-clink of cars crossing the bridge, replaced by boats slicing through the water, engines sputtering along at the recommended speed of “dead slow.”
Even farther north, where it’s smaller and less populated, the Tchefuncte River is impressive. Winding south from Tangipahoa Parish, meandering past Covington and Madisonville and finally dropping off into Lake Pontchartrain, the river and its tributaries form a watershed that’s unique even by Louisiana standards.
The Tchefuncte (Most people say Cha-FUNK-ta. It comes from an American Indian word that means chinquapin, which is a type of tree.) is more than just a river, or even a beautiful river, it’s a metaphor for change. Over 200 years, the Tchefuncte has been the centerpiece of a region that’s been a rural outpost, industrial center and exurb.
Who uses it
On a recent morning, fishermen sat in their boats, wilting in the heat, trying to land a few bass or perch or something else good enough for dinner. One man casts nets looking for bait fish.
The fishing is pretty good here, says John Haller of Picayune, Mississippi, who runs the 1Chasing Tail charter service. Most of his fishing clients would rather catch saltwater fish, though. But many of them have had good luck in the freshwater Tchefuncte in spring and in early fall.
Summer, on the other hand, is the perfect time for water sports.
Salvetti, a project manager for Stirling Properties, is also the owner of Bayou Paddle Co. As a teenager, he explored local waterways in canoes and kayaks. But after he discovered stand-up paddleboards, he bailed on boats and eventually founded his company “as an excuse to get friends on boards with me and out on the water.”
He estimates about half his paddling takes place on the Tchefuncte, especially around Madisonville, although weather, time of day and crowds influence his paddling courses around Northshore communities.
“Even though there’s boat traffic north of the town, we’ll paddle up to Brady Island and back – that’s like a six-mile paddle – and if you do it early enough in the morning there’s only fishermen that scoot by in their boats, and they don’t throw off that much of a wake,” he says.
Salvetti leads group tours and classes in the area, sometimes with scores of paddlers advancing upstream like a small army.
State Protection for a Scenic River
Salvetti isn’t alone in his passion for the Tchefuncte River. The state of Louisiana saw its value early on. In 1970, when the state launched its Natural and Scenic Rivers System, it included the northernmost section of the Tchefuncte River as well as its tributaries, down to its confluence with the Bogue Falaya River. The rest of the Tchefuncte River, from the Bogue Falaya all the way down to Lake Pontchartrain, joined the system in 1985 and ’99.
The Scenic Rivers Act provides some protection for the rivers within its system. One of its main missions: “preserving, protecting, developing, reclaiming and enhancing the wilderness qualities, scenic beauties and ecological regime of certain free-flowing streams,” as well as preserving the “aesthetic, scenic, recreational, fish, wildlife, ecological, archaeological, geological, botanical and other natural and physical features and resources” of those waterways.
But while the act limits practices such as clear-cutting and regulates permitting close to rivers, it doesn’t provide specific guidance on the maintenance of individual rivers.
And the Tchefuncte’s issues are specific, in that they combine environmental issues, tourism and residential quality of life. Some of the land mass around the Tchefuncte’s banks has eroded, especially where it meets Lake Pontchartrain; the historic Madisonville lighthouse, a landmark at its mouth, is in need of repair and has no public access; and it has a lot of refuse in its riverbed, some of which needs to be removed.
The river itself is small, but its impact is big, says Keith Cascio, Scenic Rivers Coordinator for Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
“When we look at a map of scenic rivers in Louisiana, it actually looks like the biggest one that we have. The stream itself is small, but because all those tributaries are included,” the official system creates a complex network that’s unique to the region.
The northernmost section “provides a lot of acreage of riparian areas and small streams that are a critical habitat for wildlife, but it’s also a critical habitat for wildlife propagation, fish propagation,” Cascio says.
The Tchefuncte watershed also affects the balance of Lake Pontchartrain.
“The lake is more influenced from the river than the other way around,” explains Dr. John Lopez, executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. “The habitat isn’t a distinct boundary. At the river’s mouth it’s not suddenly a river ecology [on one side] and on the other side is a lake ecology. There’s kind of a soft transition.”
Who takes care of it?
Even though St. Tammany Parish communities surround the Tchefuncte River, the parish has no oversight of the river, according to its Public Information Office.
The Tchefuncte currently has no affiliation with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a worldwide nonprofit that often licenses organizations or individuals to patrol waterways regularly.
Even though the river is small, “someone could start a Tchefuncte riverkeeper program if they wanted to. I think it would be great,” says Paul Orr, the Baton-Rouge-based Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper. “We’d be excited to help that happen.”
For now, the Tchefuncte has some local advocates. One is Kyle Catalano, Madisonville resident and the founder of the four-year-old Tchefuncte River Foundation.
It was the disappearance of a sandbar from the mouth of the river that spurred Catalano’s interest in the Tchefuncte. Over time the sandbar melted away, completely subsiding around 2009,” he says, and Catalano wanted to restore it. He became concerned for all of the Tchefuncte’s “waterways, tributaries – the land in general,” even the abandoned boats on the river. With the help of a small committee, he held a fundraiser. Ninety people came, and he raised $10,000. “It was enough to get me started, to get the attention focused on it,” he says.
Today, Catalano, who still holds his day job at a title company and describes himself as a layman, tries to work with other organizations, like the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum – organizations whose goals align with the health of the river. One of his current projects is the removal of two dozen derelict boats from the river.
Catalano describes his motivation in scenes from a childhood in St. Bernard Parish, where he grew up boating and fishing with his father, who pointed out areas of land loss and why they were important.
Now he uses his free time to run the Tchefuncte River Foundation, which, among other things, stages a series of events that highlight the river’s needs. The foundation has no full-time employees, only volunteers.
Centerpiece of industry
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Tchefuncte was a quick route between Northshore industry and the city of New Orleans. Sawmills, lumber yards, shipyards – businesses needed and used the river. The riverbed is a monument to the industry.
Gangways, docks, whole historic vessels – a lot of them intact and identifiable – logs and lumber material, and plain old trash is still down there, says Allen Saltus, a marine archaeologist based in Jackson, Louisiana, who surveyed parts of the river between 1988-’91.
Storms and other misfortunes sank boats of a more recent vintage, some still containing fuel. These are the ones that need to be carefully removed.
Meantime, is there any benefit to bringing up a historic boat? “Just where do you put it?” Saltus wonders. “Let alone preservation and cost. Right now it’s best to leave them where they’re at because they’re so well-preserved.”
Lumber was important in centuries past, and it will probably continue to be in the future as well.
Last year Lopez started a cypress planting project along the river, south of Madisonville. A marsh fire derailed those efforts – the trees were destroyed, unfortunately, but he’s going to try again.
“We’re intending to try again next winter and plant some more trees at a little bit different location,” Lopez says. “The habitat there is more suitable for cypress reforestation. It’ll help protect Madisonville from storm surge.”
Lopez and his foundation monitor the growth and progress of trees planted in other areas, like St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, and they’ve adapted well. The trees don’t even have to reach full maturity to have some benefit, he says. “The trees we plant are about three feet tall. The trees that have been there now for about three years, they’re now over 12 feet tall. Once they start getting that size, then they start to make a difference.”
Lopez says he’s also in favor of having a breakwater or pedestrian walkway along the shoreline between the mouth of the Tchefuncte and the lighthouse.
“You’d have good public access to the lighthouse” – which is currently off-limits to visitors – “at the same time you’d create a lagoon behind the breakwater, which creates a more diverse habitat. You’d also stop shoreline erosion,” Lopez says.
Planning for the future
As Louisiana’s warm weather draws to a close, so does Kyle Catalano’s “peak” season for events. Concerts, crawfish boils – getting people outdoors and near the water is key to raising awareness of the river’s issues, one event at a time, he says. But even though winter may put his fundraising event schedule temporarily on hold, he’s still thinking long term, even beyond the sandbar and the boat removal.
For the future: Like Lopez, Catalano wants to build a jetty or breakwater at the mouth of the river to replace land that has since washed away.
Catalano says the idea has local support, but is a massive project that requires the involvement of multiple agencies.
“Do I think it’s going to happen? I have no doubt that it’s going to happen,” Catalano says enthusiastically. “Am I going to be gray-haired and with grandchildren at the time? Probably so. But I’m not going to let it go.”
You need a boat to get there, and a pair of binoculars would probably help, too. The historic Tchefuncte River Light Station is a short distance from the mouth of the river, but a long way from being accessible to the general public.
A lighthouse has guided boats in that location since 1837, but the structure that stands there today dates from 1868. In 2012, Hurricane Isaac damaged it, and vandalism and disrepair ultimately led to its closure, but preservationists are attempting to restore the structure and perhaps turn it into an educational resource someday. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum manages the structure and raises funds for it.
The lighthouse got a new door this summer to replace the one damaged by Isaac, and new steps are on the way, too. The museum is planning to build up the bulkhead around the structure. But can onlookers get there soon?
“It depends on how you define soon,” says the Maritime Museum’s Interim Director Don Lynch, who says they still need time to build the supporting structures and start arranging boat trips out to the site.
“So much of it is funding – to build a pier could come within the next couple of years,” Lynch adds.
To that end, the museum recently teamed up with the Tchefuncte River Foundation to co-host the Tchefuncte Tribute, a gala that helps benefit the lighthouse.
Kyle Catalano of the foundation says the joint effort raised needed funds and created awareness around the Tchefuncte. And it fostered a formal partnership where none had existed before. Says Catalano, “That was a big win for both organizations.”
For more information on the Northshore, visit LouisianaNorthshore.com.