Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is New Orleans good for kids? - Part 2

Day 2 – Swamp Tour and Steamboat Cruise

This was a day full of boats. After breakfast at our hotel, we boarded the van to Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours on the Pearl River, which is the border between Mississippi and Louisiana down by the Gulf Coast. The Pearl River is freshwater, so is not affected by the tides. We were on the van for about an hour and got to see and hear lots about what happened to East New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. The van driver was a man in his 70s who has lived in that area his entire life. He pointed out many abandoned buildings, including houses, apartment buildings, churches, and hospitals, even some houses that were covered with vines since they were abandoned after Hurricane Betsy in 1965. He told us a bit about how he had to live in his car for three weeks after being allowed to return post-Katrina before he received his FEMA trailer. The people who stayed in New Orleans certainly have a strength about them that is evident to visitors.

The swamp tour itself lasted about 2 hours and was fascinating. Our fellow tourists were two ladies from Sweden and two couples from Australia. The small covered boat was navigated by our very skilled and informative tour guide into spots that I didn’t expect the boat would fit, but he obviously knows his stuff. We were taught that a swamp is a flooded forest and that a marsh is flooded land without trees. Swamp equals flooded forest, he kept repeating.

He pointed out, and we all were very well aware, that it was quite cool that morning, about 40 degrees cooler than just a couple of days before. He told us that this meant that the alligator viewing would be better for the afternoon tour (not ours) since they wait for the warmth before emerging from the water. For the first part of the tour, then, we did not see any alligators, but we did see plenty of blue herons, egrets, and ibises, plus simply viewing the swamp habitat itself was intriguing. The water marks on the trees clearly showed how high the water had been, which was several feet higher than it was the day we were there. So that the alligators would have the maximum amount of time to emerge during our tour, he took us south on the Pearl River, under the I-10 bridge, to see some of the camps (fishing shacks, though some were far nicer than others) and houses along that stretch of the river. We came within 6 miles of the Gulf of Mexico before taking a detour to the side and managed to see a couple of small alligators and several turtles (sliders) basking in the sunlight.

Oh, and the bald eagles!!! He told us early in the tour that early October was usually when the bald eagles would show up for the winter, but that he hadn’t seen one yet this fall. Not too far south of the I-10 bridge, he spotted a bald eagle carrying a bundle of twigs across the river. When the eagle noticed we were there, it dropped the bundle and resorted to soaring above the treeline before landing atop one of the tallest trees. The tour guide pointed out that this particular bald eagle did not have the well-known white head since he was a youth, probably only about 2 years old, and that it wouldn’t get the white head until about 4 years of age. On the way back north through that same section of river, we were all on the lookout for that same bald eagle or any other bald eagle that happened to be around. Well, guess who spotted the only other bald eagle we saw??? That would be me! This one was an adult, complete with the white head, and was sitting in a tree in the same cluster of trees where the other eagle had been earlier. When this adult eagle noticed our boat, it took off and flew a ways upriver before settling into some trees and out of sight. How cool it was to see a bald eagle in the wild!

We then headed back into the part of the swamp we had visited earlier and managed to see two alligators that were out and about. One was quite large and was just sitting on the river bank with his tail still in the water. He didn’t move at all, so all of us tourists snapped plenty of photos of him. The other was much smaller and was interested when the tour guide got his attention. By interested, I mean hoping for a treat. The tour guide had a stick that he would use to slap the water while calling out to the alligator with a “buh buh buh” sound. The gator started swimming toward the boat and the guide stuck half of a hot dog on the end of the stick, which the alligator promptly nabbed and enjoyed, even returning for a second treat before swimming away.

After the van ride back to New Orleans from the swamp, we decided to have lunch before the 2:00 boarding for the Steamboat Natchez tour of the Mississippi River around New Orleans. Since Greta and Cora had never been to Café du Monde and Hans and I (of course) love their beignets, we decided to make a lunch out of beignets since we were still pretty full from our good breakfast at the hotel that morning. We had quite a bit of fun laughing at each other as we all got powdered sugar all over ourselves, the table, and the floor.

The Natchez steamboat has existed since the 1800s, though this particular boat was built in 1975. It is the only steamboat that operates daily tours on the Mississippi River. Before boarding the boat, there was a person playing the calliope atop the boat, which we passengers all enjoyed while waiting in line to board. Aboard the steamboat, our girls enjoyed multiple trips down to the engine room to watch the steam engine and its huge pistons generate the energy to rotate the huge red paddle wheel at the back of the boat. The tour itself was very informative about the things on each side of the river, including the National Park where Andrew Jackson won the battle for New Orleans, an oil refinery, a sugar plant, and plenty of other boats and barges. We passengers waved at plenty of folks on land during the boat ride, but there was one man on the top porch of a two–story house beside the river who waved enthusiastically, which seemed to prompt the boat captain to honk the boat’s horn at him. Surprisingly, the man at the house then honked back at us with an equally loud horn! Maybe this is something that happens on every steamboat cruise....

After the steamboat ride, we wandered around the French Quarter a bit since it was still daylight and were amazed that Cora and Greta seemed oblivious to the things you only see on Bourbon Street and surrounding streets. When we asked them later what they remembered about walking in the French Quarter, they both eagerly remembered the crystal figurines (birds, cats, and other animals) and vases that were displayed in a shop window. Just as well, we figured. We had dinner at Deanie’s that night, a place that Hans and I had been to on our last trip to New Orleans, before kids. Deanie’s is known for its gigantic serving sizes of delicious Cajun seafood. Knowing this beforehand, we decided to order a half-seafood platter and one appetizer, and it was all the four of us could do to eat it all. Just imagine a full-size seafood platter!!!

Check back tomorrow for Day 3 - Louisiana Children’s Museum, Audubon Aquarium and IMAX movie

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