by Anne Butler
Slipping through the silent waters in a kayak or canoe, shaded by immense old-growth cypress trees draped with Spanish moss and wild vines, it’s hard to realize that this is in West Feliciana Parish, better known for its steep wooded hills than for the alligator- infested swamps of more coastal Louisiana. But then Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge near St. Francisville is a unique habitat area, and it certainly provides some unique recreational opportunities.
Established in 2000, Cat Island WR lies along the southernmost unleveed stretch of the lower Mississippi River. At 10,473 acres, it preserves one of the largest tracts of virgin wetland forest not protected by levees from cyclical flooding and is sometimes inundated by 15 to 20 feet of water in the springtime. From late December through June, there are times when the refuge is inaccessible except by boat, and the river can rise and fall several times during those months (check river levels at www.srh.noaa.gov/lmrfc).
This makes for a unique habitat of lakes, bayous, creeks and undisturbed forests, supporting huge populations of wintering waterfowl and migratory birds, as well as resident wildlife including white-tailed deer, black bear and many varieties of smaller game. Fishing and crawfishing, hiking, fall hunting, birdwatching, canoeing and other recreational opportunities abound.
There are four miles of hiking trails, including the 2½-mile Black Fork Trail maintained by the Louisiana Hiking Club, and the 1/4 -mile Big Cypress Trail to the National Champion bald cypress, largest tree of any species east of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This tree is thought to be between 800 to 1500 years old and is an astounding 85 feet tall.
The 526th refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System, Cat Island is currently unstaffed and is overseen by the St. Catherine’s Creek NWR Complex in Natchez, MS, under the direction of project leader Bob Strader (firstname.lastname@example.org or 601-442-6696). Strader stresses that the importance of Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge is its uniqueness. “Only 10% of the historic Mississippi River floodplain actually floods on an annual basis,” he explains, “and so the dynamics of the wetting and drying cycles make this refuge area exceptionally unique and ecologically significant.”
Acquisition of the refuge lands was made possible by an initial purchase of 9500 acres by The Nature Conservancy of Louisiana. A large part of the purpose in establishing the refuge---in addition to conserving and managing habitat areas, aquatic resources, endangered species of plants and animals, and the historic native bottomland community in this important alluvial plain---was to encourage participation of volunteers and facilitate partnerships between the US Fish and Wildlife Service, local communities and conservation organizations to promote public awareness of refuge resources.
Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge is open only during daylight hours, and vehicles are restricted to public roads and designated parking areas; ATV use is permitted on designated trails only. For hunting, fishing and ATV use, an annual Special Recreational Activity Permit is required. Maps for accessing the refuge are available at the West Feliciana Historical Society tourist information center/museum on Ferdinand St. in the heart of St. Francisville.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination. A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally.
Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography, hunting. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from seafood to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, not to mention classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.
For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at 225-635-4224; online visit www.stfrancisville.us (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park and a Farmers’ Market every Thursday and Saturday morning) or www.stfrancisvillefestivals.com.