March 8, 2016 – Mandeville, Louisiana – As we pulled into Fontainebleau State Park located on the north shore of Louisiana’s famed Lake Pontchartrain, it was silent, still and impossibly dark.
By day, the ten-minute drive from the park’s entrance to its renowned and recently renovated over-the-water lakefront cabins is a beautiful one highlighted by lake views, tangled wood and moss-draped oak trees.
By night, it is far more curious. Punctuating the otherwise opaque night, glowing at every height imaginable and in all directions, were eyes.
Slightly unnerved by the otherworldly orbs that had observed my arrival, I stepped out onto my cabin’s spacious porch, starring off into the inky blackness that the following morning would reveal itself to be Lake Pontchartrain.
Underneath me, water lapped against the posts that elevated my cabin from the crab-rich lakebed. Twenty-four miles across the lake, New Orleans hummed wildly but in the Fontainebleau, in the off-season winter, I was completely alone.
Slowly another pair of glowing eyes made their way along the dock extending from the shoreline towards my cabin. My heart leapt only long enough to make out the black and grey mask of a raccoon sauntering in my direction to inspect my trashcan for a possible midnight snack. Upon seeing me, he darted underneath the dock with acrobatic quickness and was gone.
Back towards the shore were the silhouettes of two deer sipping the lake’s brackish water. Above me was the melancholy hoot of an owl. New Orleans, glowing across the lake, with its beads and balconies, may be wild, but Fontainebleau State Park, nestled between sleepy town of Lacombe and Mandeville, was more than wild.
It was the wilderness.
While by night, the cabins at Fontainebleau State Park can best be summarized as unrivaled cabin comfort amid the glowing eyes of curious wood creatures, by day, the park reveals itself to be even more spectacular. While “over-the-water” accommodations typically call to mind something of the Tahitian variety, the cabins at Fontainebleau certainly lay claim to aspects of that tropical aesthetic, only colorfully rustic with a strong hints of antebellum flare.
The cabin’s living rooms offer television, wifi and all the technological bells and whistles desired in this day and age, but with two porches; one an open porch complete with rocking chairs and dining area, and a smaller screened in porch, one is hardly likely to use the living room couch as anything more than a place to set your suitcase before putting on your suit and jumping from the dock’s swimming platform into the salty water.
The 2,800 acre state park offers visitors a 4.8 mile hiking trail as well as a 1 ¼ mile interpretive walking trail through the woods and over the park’s complex swamps allowing guests a chance to see an assortment of the more than 400 different species of birds and animals that call the park home.
While guests staying at the cabins have unrivaled access for the water for crabbing and swimming, Fontainebleau is also home to a long stretch of beautiful beach as well as a fishing pier where guests can catch their dinner and then cook it up in the cabin’s well appointed kitchen area.
When it comes to dining or adventure, to make truly make the most out of Louisiana’s North Shore, one must venture beyond the park into the surrounding towns of Mandeville, Lacombe, Slidell and Covington where the contrast between charming southern municipalities and nature are perfectly balanced.
Bayou Adventure, Lacombe
“Not big enough for a Cajun sleigh ride but it’d probably cook real nice in a pan,” said Jeff, my Kayak Guide from Bayou Adventure, the next morning as I considered the tiny perch that I had just yanked from the emerald water of Cane Bayou located in Lacombe, just outside Fontainebleau.
A Cajun sleigh ride, Jeff explained, was a local term used when fishing from a kayak and one catches a fish large enough that said fish tows the kayaker until it becomes too exhausted to swim. “Sounds kind of fun,” I said as we paddled towards Pontchartrain.
Bayou Adventure, based out of the sleepy town of Lacombe, is the premiere outfitter in the region, renting kayaks, bikes and fishing gear. Visitors not familiar with the area can also hire guides to take them to some of the harder-to-reach areas and offer better access to some of the area’s diverse wildlife.
Cane Bayou is a stunning stretch of wildlife rich water that cuts between Fontainebleau State Park and the Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge.
Bayou means slow moving water, and like all bayous in the area, Cane is ablaze with wildlife ranging from alligators and turtles to river otters. Along the shoreline, endangered cockaded woodpeckers dart among hollowed out trees and an osprey lazily traces the shoreline looking for a perch of his own.
As we turn a bend, we spot a three-foot alligator sunning on a log.
“We call that one Big Mama.”
While impressive to encounter such a toothy reptile in the wild, the gator known as Big Mama lacked a certain crocodilian menace I’d expected with such a robust name.
“I’d let that thing take me on a Cajun sleigh ride,” I said, tossing my worm in its direction.
“That’s not Big Mama,” said Jeff. Above the water, a giant, marbled eye studied us before dropping into the bayou, creating a wake with her massive tail as she swam away.
“That’s big Mama.”
My kayak rocked back and forth in the enormous gator’s wake.
“Still want that sleigh ride?” offered Jeff as I cautiously tossed my worm back into the water and we paddled onward.
Doctor Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tour
“You ever seen a wild hog swim?” asked my guide from Doctor Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, as we reached the turning point of a terrific three hour swamp tour.
“I haven’t,” I said, suddenly curious. Despite being on a large vessel, our captain had maneuvered us into an impossible tight, remote area of swamp.
“Get ready,” he said. With an ear-piercing whistle, he pulled out a bag of marshmallows. From deep in the forest, something began to oink.
As the echo of the guide’s whistle faded out, the oinks began to multiply into a chorus. Branches snapped as a wave of hogs barreled towards the water. The first of the hogs leapt into the murky water as the guide lobbed a marshmallow. Within seconds the still swamp water had turned into a Jacuzzi of hungry hogs.
“Nothing a hog loves more than a marshmallow,” said the guide, tossing in more of the spongy confection until the bag was empty and we turned back towards the dock, a family of hogs swimming in the wake behind us hoping for one last morsel.
In the town of Slidell, a fifteen-minute drive from Fontainebleau,State Park, is Doctor Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours. What Lacombe’s Bayou Adventures offers in terms of wildlife proximity, Doctor Wagner offered in abundance and information.
The swamp, which means flooded forest, is located between the east and west Pearl River and is dense with wildlife ranging from gators to cougars and red wolves. Huge for fishing, locals troll the waters for sunfish and bass and the relics of vacation homes destroyed by Katrina line the shore as a reminder of nature’s raw power.
Eerie, moss-covered cypress trees form a canopy over the swamp, which seems to go on forever.
As my last day comes to an end, I cruise past the gates of Fontainebleau State Park in a rush to get tomy porch before the sun sets over Lake Pontchartrain. Alongside the road, I notice two wild pigs. Moments later a doe and her fawn dash off into the woods.
Somewhere a Pileated Woodpecker cries its primordial call and a little blue heron flies lazily to its roost.
As I make my way down the dock towards my balcony, once again the raccoon checks out my trashcans and I can’t help but smile. He skitters off as I take my seat, crack open an Abita beer and watch the sunset.
Louisiana’s North Shore had truly been wild.