The utility plant of south Louisiana’s wetlands, and a major player in Camp Salmen’s woods, is the Southern Wax Myrtle or Bayberry (Myrica cerifera). It’s an evergreen that ranges in size from a large shrub to a small tree. They can be found in both salt marshes and Cypress swamps; all they need is a piece of slightly elevated, drained ground like a canal or bayou bank. Plus they grow in most any other environment in the Southeastern U.S.
Another undiscriminating trait is how it grows — any old way it can. They will do whatever it takes to reach the sunlight, even attaining grotesque shapes to work around the other plants in the forest. They can be found leaning way over toward an opening, or branching off in several directions to catch the sun here and there with clusters of leaves bushing out from the ends of their branches. Sometimes the tree can add to the beauty of Bayou Liberty by reaching over the water in a pleasing fashion. They also attain bizarre, Dr. Seuss-like shapes in the woods.
Besides its supreme ecological adaptability, another specialty of the plant is its wax, an aromatic coating on its berries, once harvested for candle making. Other parts of the plant have been used for medicine for an amazing variety of ailments — fevers, dysentery, convulsions, colic, diarrhea, palsy, bleeding gums, seizures and as a topical antibiotic. Animals eat them as food and depend on their digestive juices to strip away the wax to get at their yummy natural, nutritious goodness. They then poop out the seeds all over the forest and help spread the plant around.
Another unusual characteristic of the plant is that its many aromatic compounds adds to its flammablity. In case of wildfire it goes up in flames like the Hindenburg. Not to worry though, its root system stays safe underground and ready to spring back to allow the plant to re-grow and participate in another round of competition in the recovering forest.
Camp Salmen Nature Park is one of a string of beautiful natural areas on the nature-blessed North Shore. Besides having amenities like picnic pavilions, historic structures, meeting places and scenic Bayou Liberty, the park has four miles of footpaths, bike trails and boardwalks for close-up observation of nature. With the Holidays upon us and lovely, cool weather, it’s a prime time to take a hike, get some exercise and enjoy the wonder of it all.
As you walk the one-mile length of the park you can see signs of how the land developed over time. The banks of Bayou Liberty and the main “Camp Ridge” part of the park were laid by pre-historic floods. The Salmen Lodge, originally an old trading post and early brickworks, are relics of the settlers and Native Americans in the early 1800s. The ancient Longleaf Pine forest that once stood on this land and the clays underneath were extracted at the turn of the last century by Fritz Salmen who left rail beds, clay pits and a generous gift to the Boy Scouts. During the next century the land recovered nicely with the help of Louisiana’s ideal “hothouse” climate. A mix of hardwoods, Slash pine, native and non-native plant species allow the landscape to continue to recover and evolve.
We have three trail systems:
- The BAYOU LIBERTY TRAIL (approx. ¼ mi.) next to the main parking lot includes the popular SWAMPWALK BOARDWALK through wetlands to an observation platform overlooking the quiet waters of the bayou. To the north of the boardwalk (upstream) is the Nature Garden and Outdoor Classroom and to the south (downstream) is the amphitheater and Salmen Lodge. Glimpses of the beautiful bayou are along the way.
- The asphalt BIKE PATH (approx. ½ mi.) is a spur from our future link to the Tammany Trace Bike Trail. It begins at the pavilion, crosses Goldfish Bayou, goes past Mary’s Grotto and follows the W-12 Canal to the gates to Slidell’s suburbs and the downtown end of the Trace.
- The MAIN TRAI L (approx. 1 mi.) begins in the corner of the field across Parish Parkway from Mary’s Grotto. Stay to the left, and except for a couple of short dead ends, goes through the woods all the way to the other end of the park. On the right are several loops and exits to the parkway. The GUM SWAMP BOARDWALK is the first trail to the right after the beginning of the trail and the PINE SAVANNAH BOARDWALK is at the other end, near the park entrance. Maps are in the Main Pavilion.
Different ecological zones are along the way: Flatwoods, bottomland, hardwood forest, old-growth pine, oak and pine savannah. Where the tree canopy has been opened up by Pine Beetle infestations, hurricanes, tornados, the Boy Scout camp and the nature park, sunlight is let in and these areas can appear scrubby and confused. The new vegetation sorts itself out through intense competition and the plant life begins another attempt to seek equilibrium.
You can’t get hopelessly lost, the park is too small and there are too many neighbors all around, but you do have to watch the time so you can get back to your car before 5:00 pm closing. A quicker path back to the beginning follows the edge of the woods along the parkway. Enjoy!
They are a familiar sight here in South Louisiana but to those unaccustomed to seeing large, exotic-looking, pure white birds hanging out so close to humans, it must be fascinating. The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is often seen still-hunting for fish, insects and crustaceans in roadside ditches and waterways, or flying elegantly above our neighborhoods. They also happen to be part of the Camp Salmen Nature Park logo because there always seems to be one or two of them stalking the banks on our part of Bayou Liberty.
They are a big bird in stature only, standing two feet tall with a three foot wingspan, yet they weigh only about three-quarters of a pound. I once found one that had just been struck by a car and, as it was the first time I ever had an opportunity to lay hands on one, I was astonished at how remarkably light it was; like a bird ought to be, I supposed.
Egrets have bright yellow feet that apparently help scare up their prey, long, spindly black legs for wading that stick straight out behind them as they fly. There is a long, pointy, black beak on the other end; all the better for plucking up the small animals they eat. If need be they can adroitly toss their victim in the air to catch it and reposition it for swallowing. Their slender neck is usually coiled in a graceful “S” shape while standing or in flight but stretches out straight when they gulp their catch.
They usually find an isolated spot nearby to roost together up off the ground for the night. They seek even more remote locations to build their rickety nests in trees for group breeding. It’s an awesome sight to come across dozens of their stark white forms nesting together deep in a dark cypress forest.
The species got into real trouble at the turn of the last century because their breeding season plumage, a cascade of special, lacy white feathers, were considered quite fashionable on a lady’s hat. Since the value of these feathers exceeded that of gold, they were slaughtered on an industrial scale to near extinction. This problem actually gave rise to the nation’s first wildlife sanctuaries. Fortunately, this happened at the same time women’s fashions lurched off in other directions.
Vultures are magnificent in flight, soaring effortlessly high above, wings spread wide, seemingly taut and light as a kite. They have only to make adroit and subtle moves with their wings, hardly flapping them at all to stay aloft on the breezes forever. They wheel about, this way and that, cruising for just the right scent - the whiff of rotting flesh wafting from the land below. Then they spin down for a communal meal with friends. These scavengers are part of Mother Nature’s “Cleanup Crew,” a none-too-proud fraternity scouring the surface of the Earth to clean up such messes before they get out of hand and become pestilent. They are ugly specimens, with disgusting eating habits, but they serve a great purpose in nature’s complex food chain.
It’s a curious juxtaposition, this beautiful, elegant vision in the sky and the ghastly feeding behavior and the placement in the food web but these are the facts. Unlike many animals who only take an occasional carrion meal - raccoons, lions, yellow jackets, crows, dogs, flies, wolves, bears, owls, hyenas, etc. - vultures feed almost exclusively on the dead. They are considered such an integral part of the ecology they are a protected species under a 1918 Federal law. For instance, you can’t just “choot ‘em” and have one stuffed for display in your office or living room.
There are two birds of similar size, shape and mission soaring over St. Tammany: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) range from the tip of South America to Canada and the American Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) lives in the southern part of North America to the northern part of South America. They both share the same repulsive diet and traits like having no voice except the occasional grunt or hiss, naked heads and a preference for flying over semi-wooded land (open areas are easier to exit if dinner is suddenly interrupted).
You can tell the two vultures apart on the ground because Cathertes has red on the head, like a Turkey. The Black Vulture’s head is covered with wrinkly, grey skin. Neither will win an avian beauty contest. In flight, the whole back two-thirds of the wings and tail of the Turkey Vulture are light grey in color. The Black Vulture is light grey only on its wing tips.
In America the term Buzzard is sometimes used for these birds. It’s an old European name for certain kinds of raptors, which was transferred across the Atlantic by the Europeans who stuck it on these scavengers.
In spite of having driven past thousands of these birds feasting alongside the highway, I’ve found them to be cagey beasts that don’t like to have their photograph taken. I once tried repeatedly to get some shots of a small group just down the road but they kept a close watch on me and fled up into the trees each time I showed myself to get a good shot. Apparently they were more comfortable around the predicable, speeding automobile than with a stalking photographer lurking about. They should have never worried because there were many good reasons why I wasn’t about to horn in on their dinner.
The old brick building next to Bayou Liberty at Camp Salmen began being called the “Salmen Lodge” after Fritz Salmen donated it, and a considerable amount of land, to the Boy Scouts for their new campground. However, the history surrounding the building predates Fritz Salmen, Scouting, Slidell and even the United States. It was a part of a nearly 300 year old community called Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty, one of the first on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. It was established just after New Orleans was founded when a fellow named Bertram Jaffre (who called himself “La Liberte’”) and others settled where bayous Liberty, Paquet and Bonfouca came together. He helped pioneer north shore industries like cutting timber and making charcoal and bricks. Other Frenchmen moved here to do this and to farm, fish and hunt. They also built beautiful boats – schooners and sloops that plied the lakes and the Gulf Coast to trade in these products. These people gave rise to generations of Creoles whose decedents live here today. Bonfouca (the emphasis is on the last syllable) was a century and a half old when Slidell was just a rough rail-worker’s camp next to the tracks.
In the early decades of the 1800s a lake trader named Joseph Laurent built a brick “blockhouse” on a high bank of Bayou Liberty next to a wide spot where he could turn his schooner around. The building that was to become the Salmen Lodge was in the Creole style, with front and back porches, tall windows and a raised floor for ventilation. Laurent established a trading post here and had local Indians and settlers as his clients. Laurent also manufactured bricks and clay pits and brick rubble from this enterprise remain on the property. During the Spanish and early American eras much of the brick made on Bayou Liberty helped build the French Quarter we know today. For the rest of the nineteenth century the building served the local community as a store and an office for a ferry across the bayou.
At the very beginning of the 1900s Salmen Brick and Lumber Co. bought this property, and in the tradition of La Liberte’ and Laurent, cut its timber and mined its clay for bricks. Some twenty years later Fritz Salmen was conducting business in New Orleans when a thunderstorm prevented him from crossing the street. A boy with an umbrella showed up by his side and offered to help. When Fritz tried to give him a tip, the boy politely refused explaining he was a Boy Scout and this was his good deed for the day. Fritz was charmed, took the time to learn more about scouting, liked what he learned and decided to give the property, for which he no longer had a use, to the Boy Scouts of New Orleans. To honor his generosity they named the new Boy Scout Camp and its historic old trading post after him.
Some sixty years later, after nearly 400,000 boys had stayed at Camp Salmen, the Scouts where finished with the property and St. Tammany Parish Government acquired it to turn it into Camp Salmen Nature Park so future generations can continue to enjoy this beautiful piece of land. The plans are to return much of the park and the Salmen Lodge into what they were probably like in the early 1800s and possibly use the old trading post as a special event facility and a museum dedicated to the long, colorful history of Bonfouca.
On only a couple of occasions have I had the great, good fortune to see River Otters (Lontra canadensis) at Camp Salmen. They once were more common across North America - in the Northwest, Canada and the eastern third of the country- but, unfortunately, they have gotten scarce in many parts of the country because of loss of habitat, plus they really don’t like water pollution. They will turn up their noses and leave streams that are unpleasant to be in or where forage has been diminished. Also, their numbers were diminished because they were extensively trapped for their fur but this fashion trend is not as much in vogue as it once was.
The first otter I saw here was crossing Parish Parkway from one ditch to another. They have a distinctive hunched-over shape when they move and are easy to recognize, even at a distance, especially when they’re plain- as- day in the middle of the road. It apparently was making its way up the park’s Goldfish Bayou from Bayou Liberty, no doubt on the hunt. I was impressed they would scour for food so far up the tributaries off the main stream.
The second time I saw otters was just the other day, in frigid weather. There were two of them travelling side by side down the middle of Bayou Liberty. They would pop their heads up, grab a breath and go down for a minute, scouring the bottom while moving downstream. They would pop back up about twenty feet further and then repeat the process. I watched, transfixed by the beauty and uniqueness of it, until they disappeared around the bend. The fact that they were hunting in Bayou Liberty speaks well for the ecological health of this local water body.
Otters are cute as can be, with a cartoonish, mustachioed face like Teddy Roosevelt’s and a sturdy yet slinky body that moves in a lithe way. This isn’t hard to figure when you consider they are part of the weasel family but this particular model is supremely adapted for living in and around water. They have webbed feet, a sleek, streamlined body that is well insulated, closeable nostrils and ears to shut out water and stiff whiskers to help them find things to eat on the murky bottom.
What otters scare up for dinner includes crustaceans, clams, amphibians, slow moving fish and bottom dwelling insect larvae but they will even have a go at birds, reptiles and small mammals they find on the bank. On land they have a kind of loping gait and don’t move very fast on their short legs. It’s In the water where their moves are more agile.
Otters are very social animals and get together in sizable, mixed groups (young and old, male and female) in summer when they hunt (usually at night), groom each other, play with one another and live together in dens. The females tend to stay by themselves with the kids in the dens during the winter. Its fun to watch them frolic and cavort on nature shows on television or at the zoo but I’d really love to get to see this sometime in person.
The most enigmatic creature at Camp Salmen has got to be the Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) Are they ferocious predators that hold dogs at bay and terrorize chickens at night? (They’ve been accused of reaching in and viciously yanking birds through their cages.) Or are they just the chumps of the Animal Kingdom, eating scraps from trashcans? They lumber along like they’re dumber than a box of dirt, but they may actually hide great wisdom, like Yoda of the forest (Louisiana Indians once deified them and worshiped ‘possum figures in their temples). ‘Possums can be cute; with fuzzy, round, little ears, soft white fur, pink feet and pointy little pink noses, but they can also be repulsive, smelly, disheveled and drooling; threatening anyone who comes near with bare teeth and vile hissing. For an animal, they certainly have personality plus.
They are an omnivore’s omnivore – eating anything they can get their little paws on, from garbage, carrion and crunchy, writhing centipedes to delicate berries on the vine and sweet persimmons from the tree. Another distinction is they are North America’s only marsupial, nursing their tiny babies in a pouch just like a Kangaroo or Koala. As the babies grow up it is charming to see them clinging on Mama’s back for a ride.
Their chief claim to fame is “Playing ‘Possum.” When they get really scared they “escape” by conking out and appearing to be dead. It’s a good trick that has kept them from becoming dinner many times. Their bodies do weird psychological and physiological things. They assume something like a catatonic state for one to four hours that they can’t voluntarily snap out of. They lie down, curl up and with eyes half shut and their mouth open, their lips curl back and they start to drool. Their bodies stiffen like rigor mortis has set in. You could kick one around or carry it like a football and he won’t “break character” because he can’t help it. To top it off, the normally fastidious groomer excretes all over himself, matting his hair and stinking up the place. He looks a mess and I wouldn’t blame anyone, man nor animal, for not wanting anything to do with him in this condition. Still, all in all, I’ll always contend that most possums are better than some people.
Recent north winds dropped the level of Bayou Liberty about as low as it goes in winter. This exposed part of the shoreline, normally underwater, is showing something I never noticed before- several heavy, granite blocks. Given the location, they had only one purpose I want to imagine - ballast from the schooner Marguerite. This was the boat owned and operated by trading post owner Joseph Laurent who, no doubt, routinely tied her up here. Could it be?
Joseph Laurent (b- 179? - d. 1865) was likely the first to build where Camp Salmen later came to be. He built a trading post on the bluff above the bayou (now named Salmen Lodge) and was a lake trader, someone who routinely sailed from north shore rivers to deliver locally produced materials, crops and farm animals to New Orleans and Gulf Coast destinations and returned with other merchandise. There were dozens and dozens of these guys and their boats operating on Lake Pontchartrain in the early 1800s, for water was the best way to travel. They were the pick-up trucks and taxi cabs of their day.
The Marguerite was built on the Tchefuncte River in 1811. She was a two-masted schooner, 48 feet long, 13.5 feet wide and weighing 18.5 tons. She drew 3.5 feet of water and was seaworthy enough to take whatever Lake Pontchartrain was likely to throw at her. On top of all the other advantages of the site, Laurent chose this part of the bayou because it happened to be wide enough to turn the boat around for the return trip.
Consider everything it took to safely operate this piece of equipment. Not only did Laurent have to navigate long distances using mast, sail, block and boom, he had to contend with all manner of wind and wave. He also had to get up and down Bayou Liberty to get to his trading post. Fortunately, the bayou trends southwest and prevailing winds would often favor this tack but there are dozens of curves throughout the bayou until you reach the lake. A contrary wind could have stopped the Marguerite dead in her tracks. Hopefully Laurent packed a lunch.
There were only two ways back then that we know of, for getting in and out of this predicament - warping and towing. With warping, a hand was actually sent overboard with a rope, either swimming or in a dingy, to grab the next tree and pull. Or you could have gotten towed with an ox or a mule from the bank. Although this sounds a lot easier, it means a great deal of preparation by hacking away any obstacles on the bank to create a tow-path. This is something else I'll just have to wonder about. That Camp Salmen actually has a maritime heritage is a wonderful added feature to our park.
A couple of real troublemakers at Camp Salmen are the privets of the Ligustrum clan. No, these are not degenerate, marauders of Norwegian stock, as their name suggests, they are invasive plant species from Asia. They and their seven cousins were “invited” to this country as well-behaved decorative plants but have since become naturalized, escaped into the wild and gone crazy. Since they were from latitudes similar to those in the U.S. they quite liked it here and decided stay and take over. They out-compete our sweet, innocent, native plants and are in the middle of attempting to crowd them out of existence and replace them.
Most of us are familiar with the thick, waxy, dark green leaves of Japanese Ligustrum, also called Wax-leaf Privet (Ligustrum japonicum). People have actually encouraged this plant by inviting it on their property. Its durability and robustness make landscapers swoon, so they use it in hedges. If left alone and not trimmed it can grow into a small tree. It pops up here and there in the park but does not spread very readily.
The real troublemaker is the beast that wants to take over the world — Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense). It’s the type of plant that takes advantage of any gap in the vegetation by filling in the space with itself and lording over its neighbors to shade them out. If it’s stuck in the shade it will get by in a reduced state as an awkward, scraggly-looking shrub with smaller leaves and sparse, wiry branches. At one time, this wiriness led agricultural agencies across the South to promote it as a poor man’s livestock fence if it was grown close together. This, of course, helped it spread like wildfire.
Its worst side comes out if it finds itself in a place with enough sun and room to grow. It grows dense splays of long, arching branches, each edged with twin rows of larger paired, oval leaves that soak up the sun year ‘round, for it is an evergreen. The problem is there are too many of them. They grow all over the park, muscling their way in between the other plants, reaching up and over, spreading out to shade their neighbors, starve them of sunlight and starve them to death. Nice guys, huh? They are targeted for removal in the park but it is an uphill battle.
The raccoons at Camp Salmen are always teaching me new tricks. I recently watched one tearing apart a huge log with his bare paws — a log I thought was solid and intact. He was working right next to the Bayou Liberty boardwalk and didn’t seem to care one whit whether I was watching. The fallen section of pine tree he was on was a leftover from Hurricane Katrina, some eight years ago. Little did I know how ripe and ready it was to become partially demolished by Mr. ‘Coon as he sought the big, tasty white grub worms inside. Yum! No wonder he was so preoccupied.
What is a grub? It is a beetle larva, and the bigger the grub the bigger the beetle. There are tens of thousands of species of beetles and the family of Scarabaeidaeis one of the most popular. Their classic, colorful, armored form inspired theScarab jewelry once wildly popular with the Ancient Egyptians. Somehow they translated the life cycle of the beetle — from egg to grub to beetle and back to egg — into a metaphor for the daily cycle of “Ra,” the Sun.
Many people are familiar with the curled white grubs found when digging in local soil. One of the most popular species that lives here becomes the prolific “June bug” beetle (Phyllophaga) each spring. These larvae cause horticulturalists and homeowners headaches when they feed on the roots of grasses and kill off lawn turf.
Other types of beetle larvae use another kind of feeding strategy: burrowing into and literally eating through moist rotten logs that are full of flavorful “white-rot.” The hurricane left a massive amount of dead wood on the ground at Camp Salmen. This was a banner event for the “decomposers” (any organism that makes a living by eating dead stuff) and creatures like woodpeckers and raccoons that mine decomposers out of dead wood and eat them. (Human entomophagists — insect eaters — prefer them sautéed in butter with a touch of garlic, but that’s another story, one probably not suitable for a family newspaper.)
What Mr. ‘Coon was probably after were the nice big Giant Stag Beetle (Lucanus elaphus) larvae who like eating the rotten logs found across Dixie Land. These are the beetles that have the large, ornate jaws and horns; appendages all the better for attracting females and tussling with rival males. As ferocious as they appear, these jaws are mostly for show and can barely “goose” another beetle, much less rip into human flesh. So, if you find one of these scarabs in the park, don’t be afraid to pick him up and pet him before you let him go on his way.
I hope it doesn’t freeze again for the rest of 2014 — I’ve had enough. If you’ve lost a beloved plant, knowing it died a horrible, agonizing death and turned into brown goo, you might be asking yourself, “Why exactly do some plants freeze and others stay green and healthy?”
Here are strategies surviving plants use;
- Size- It might depend on the build of the plant. Plants that grow low to the ground are less likely to be exposed to environmental stresses than plants that protrude higher in the air, daring the environment to come and get them.
- Shape– Thermonasty is a plant’s ability to curl its leaves or point its needles downward to reduce its exposure.
- Anti-freeze– Super cooling agents, or dissolved salts, sugars, enzymes and amino acids in the plant’s juice do not readily freeze in sub-freezing temperatures. This trait may work hand-in-hand with dehydration.
- Dehydration– As the plant acclimates to colder weather, dehydrin proteins within the plant’s tender cellular protoplasm, help to ease the pure water out of the cell and into the more rugged spaces in between the cells where water is free to form crystals and expand without doing much harm. Also, the walls of the shriveled cells are a little denser and tougher.
- Leaf size and Additives – Conifers with needles, as well as cedars and cypress with scale-like leaves, just don’t hold much water to begin with. Evergreens add a new layer of cuticular wax on their needles during the growing season for insulation. Woody plants bolster their bark with lignin and suberin to harden themselves for winter.
Of course, none of these defense mechanisms are a complete guarantee against extreme temperatures or monstrous ice storms that physically wreck vegetation. This falls under the category of evolution, where the strong survive and the weak turn to goo.
We lost a large, old Southern Red Cedar tree (Juniperus cilicicola) at Camp Salmen recently. It provided beauty and shade to front of the Salmen Lodge for years but had unfortunately become a lingering victim of Hurricane Katrina. It was leaning dangerously close to the historic lodge, advanced in age, and though someone had tried to save it and the building by propping it up with a piece of telephone pole, it wasn’t enough to insure the survival of either one, so the tree had to go. It’s a shame because it was apparently a relic from the earliest days of the Boy Scouts at their new campground. I counted 85 rings, which made it around 1929 when it either volunteered or was possibly planted as an ornamental shrub.
For those who pay close attention to such things, these are not true cedars but are junipers. It was a special coastal variety, preferring the sandy soils found along Bayou Liberty and able to tolerate a little salty coastal air, unlike the more common Red Cedar that grows inland all across the eastern half of the U.S.
All in all, Cedars are nice trees. Around a house they have a wonderful fragrance. Look closely at the cedar tree’s greenery and instead of needles, each twig is covered with numerous tiny chlorophyll-filled “leaves” that overlap each other like scales on a fish. Their pinkish/red-brown wood is rot resistant and, as an added bonus, repels moths. Cedar-lined chest and closets are known to protect clothing from these insects year round. Native Americans used to make excellent hunting bows with the wood and modern uses include pencils. It is possible it was a Red Cedar that was spotted high on the Scotlandville bluff by the French explorer d ’Iberville who gave Baton Rouge (“Red Stick”) its name.
These conifers are somewhat brittle in old age and lose limbs from various mishaps. They can also become misshapen by smothering vines but they have the potential to attain a classic “Christmas Tree” shape as well as reach the ripe old age of 800 years. We have several rugged specimens here and there in the park.
On the surface, Camp Salmen looks like your typical nature park: lawns and green trees everywhere, wildlife scampering about; all the usual nature park stuff. Little betrays the billions and billions of bricks and brick parts buried beneath the surface here. Go anywhere in the park and turn a spade of dirt and you’ll likely come up with a brick. This one of the park’s themes.
This place began with bricks. It’s just up the bayou from where the Frenchman “La Liberte’” made a living in the early 1700s making bricks from local clays. The clay was brough to Bayou Liberty naturally, suspended in its moving waters. Little by little, over hundreds, even thousands of years, it settled out and accumulated in quiet, flooded areas and covered up over time. Jaffre and other Frenchmen dug up the clay, formed it into small, rectangular blocks and baked them in small ovens or kilns. Jaffre’s bricks were snatched up like brick hotcakes in old New Orleans and were put into the foundations, floors and walls of the city’s earliest structures. Others caught on to his little scheme and the mania for making bricks spread from there up and down the bayou and beyond until, much later, Slidell became the “City of Brick.”
New Orleans ended up burning to the ground twice in the late 1700s and the Spanish, who were in charge, declared, “Enough is enough!” and decreed that all new construction would henceforth be of brick and mortar. The game was on for brick and mortar makers on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
By the time Joseph Laurent bought this place in the early 1800s, “brickbats,” which is what broken bricks are called, were noted as being piled high on the banks of the bayou and were used as local landmarks. Laurent built a trading post here with his own bricks and, no doubt, dabbled in the trade for them across the lake. What is probably one of his old clay pits, “the hole in the ground from which the French Quarter sprang,” remains next to his trading post, today’s Salmen Lodge.
Later, Fritz Salmen, a.k.a. “Grand Master Brick” and his posse (family) took brick making to a highly industrialized art form and sought clay deposits throughout the area. What later became Camp Salmen gave up its clay to him and became, in exchange, a repository of evermore brick waste from Salmen’s factories. This was added to brick deposits along the bayou that fortified and defended its banks from erosion.
Mixed in with all this are the countless “Bricks Named Joe.” A lot of broken St. Joe bricks also made it onto the property and each loudly declares its personal identity and soul to any and all.
One of Fritz Salmen’s bricks.
This time of year when the morning humidity is just right it’s striking to see the hundreds, if not thousands of what I’ve been mistakenly calling “basket spider webs” up and down Parish Parkway in the park. These are made by a spider who hangs a small, compact basket-shaped web from tall grass and shrubs that droops with the fullness of the morning dew and are thus easy to spot. The webs tend to become invisible during the day after the dew evaporates.
It turns out the scientific name of the tiny “sheet web” spider responsible for this is Frontinella communis and its proper common name is Bowl and Doily Spider. It gets this term because its web, about the size of a human hand, is usually in two parts — a bowl shape that sits above a flatter disc shape, like an upside down halo. To some, this lower part resembles a doily but since I have never used a doily in my life I’ll probably continue to erroneously call them basket spiders. An old English superstition calls them “Money Spiders” because, and this is a stretch, if one of these spiders is found crawling on you it means they are there to spin you new clothes which means good fortune.
They have at least a couple of distinctive behaviors. They orient themselves perpendicular to the rays of the sun. Scientists think this must have something to do with the way they regulate their body temperature. As you know, a spider doesn’t simply sit around waiting for prey, it lurks. This spider does its lurking in the narrow space in between the bowl and the doily. When a gnat, fly or other small insect blunders into the bowl (this web is not sticky, so the insect has to sit still for a moment) the spider trots over and bites it from underneath through the web. This hiding spot inside the web is also imagined to give the animal a measure of protection from its equally small enemies, making it feel safe and secure in spite of living outdoors in such a fragile construct, waving in the wind with cars whizzing up and down the road.
If you get into the park early enough on one of these cool and humid autumn mornings you may be lucky to see these webs lining Parish Parkway, especially where the dew tends to linger down in the ditch. It’s a beautiful sight and if you look closely and see a Frontenella communis wave and say hello.
Close-up of a Bowl & Doily spider’s dew covered web. Note the small spider hiding in between the “bowl” and “doily.”
Camp Salmen Nature Park is part of St. Tammany Parish’s newly formed Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, and all three of these elements are in plentiful supply here. There are also historic links to these same ideas in the name “St. Tammany” and in the history of the native people of the Parish.
In the early days of the French in Louisiana, long before New Orleans was established, the small garrison under Bienville was able to make it through their first few winters in the Louisiana wilderness with the help of the Colapissa Indian tribe in their village on Bayou Castine in present day Mandeville. Reason and peace prevailed between the Europeans and the natives. They all had to contend with the forces of nature and each brought their own technology, knowledge and culture into this struggle.
The ship’s carpenter Andre Penicaut relates the kindness offered to the foreign guests — lodging in the Chief’s house, feasts of game brought by the hunters, fresh wild strawberries brought by the village maidens, and wild tribal dancing and merriment accompanied by the French fiddle. To these weary visitors this hospitality under the beautiful moss-draped oaks on the Pontchartrain shore must have seemed like time well spent in a restful wilderness paradise.
Almost a century later, during the formation of the United States, there was a fondness in the thirteen colonies for the memory of Delaware Chief Tamanend the Affable. He and his tribe had been similarly helpful to the English in their early days in America, and during these friendly encounters they exchanged philosophical ideas on liberty, friendship, equality and the brotherhood of man. By the time of the American Revolution, the ideals of Tamanend, or “St. Tammany” as he became known, had achieved nearly cult status and St. Tammany Societies sprang up among the patriots. Some of these men migrated to Louisiana after the war, and when they established this parish they invoked the name of the wise Delaware chief that they revered and also perhaps evoked the memory of the generous local natives.
We are blessed with the legacy of the Native Americans, their spirit and the many names they gave to the bayous, rivers and places of the Parish — even its name.
Tung Nut Trees - Invasion by Invitation
Camp Salmen has a curious tree on its grounds, a Chinese invasive species called Tung (Aleurites fordii). These have large, roundish, flat leaves, some bigger than your hand. They are vaguely heart-shaped; the term “tung” supposedly means “heart” in Chinese. The tree also produces huge, green, golf-ball size nuts each year. People are always picking them up off the ground and asking - “What the heck are these?” Well, they’re poisonous, so don’t eat them.
Several young Tung grow in the shade along the Bayou Liberty Trail and we keep a fairly large specimen in the sunlight nearby, for old-times sake, for these trees have an interesting history.
On his journeys to the Far East in the 1200s the Italian trader Marco Polo was informed that the oil pressed from the nut of this tree was good for lamp lights, medicines and waterproofing various materials, even preserving the wood in ships. He brought it back to Europe where was indeed used as a wood preservative for centuries. Around WW I U. S. agronomists heavily promoted planting the tree as a way to keep recently logged Southern forest land in commerce. Industrial-scale cultivation, production and refining of the oil ensued. At the onset of WW II the material was in such great use it was declared a ”strategic commodity” as it was used for ship’s paints and waterproofing and lubricating ammunition. It also substituted the Chinese sources disrupted by the war. Federal subsidies allowed the industry to swell in size.
Unfortunately, some things that go up must come down. A combination of persistent winter frost & freezes and devastating hurricanes ruined Tung plantations across the Gulf South during the second half of the last century. The market also soured from foreign competition and the appearance of modern synthetic substitutes. The industry all but collapsed, save for a tiny demand by purists who still desired the products superior, and natural, wood preserving qualities. The once promising cash crop met an ignominious end by being categorized as an “exotic pest.” All that are left around these parts are remnants and refugees. They pop up here and there and shade out the natives but are fairly easy to control so we left just a few for grins.
One of the nicest things about my work at Camp Salmen is helping to make the park more enjoyable for people to visit. First off, it’s already such a beautiful place to visit because of the nature of the land and the way it’s been developed and managed (or simply left alone). As a matter of course, we try to keep it looking good; picking up the litter, cutting the grass and such. Additionally, we’ve been able to add new features like the trails, tree plantings, the playground, the soon to open amphitheater and plan on adding much more. We recently added another by simply clearing some brush.
Along part of the Bayou Liberty Trail, behind the flagpole, was a bunch of dead Chinese Privet. I killed it a year or so ago because it is an aggressive invasive species, does not belong here, shuts out plants that do and had taken over this part of the park. We decided to remove it by attacking it with saws and long-handled loppers.
It was a good afternoon’s work, cutting the brush off as close to the ground as we could and piling it up at the base of a big oak tree buried in the clutter. On the left hand side of the clearing that emerged was a previously hidden marsh full of Louisiana iris in springtime bloom. It was a beautiful spot and would be a delightful discovery for anyone hiking on our trails.
The next week we decided to break out the big guns to do more clearing. Our Bobcat machine is like a giant Swiss Army knife with lots attachments and we mounted one that made quick work of what would have taken several days, if not weeks of arduous hand clearing. In an afternoon we had a brand new part of the park – complete with a marsh, several huge Live Oak trees, an overlook on Bayou Liberty that is practically a cliff-side view plus possible space for a picnic pavilion. I call it “The Oak Grove.”
Check it out next time you pay a visit to the park. It is still a little rough, so be careful where you step. I’m know you’ll love it.
I saw the most extraordinary bird soaring above Camp Salmen the other day. It had long, gracefully curving wings, a sharply forked tail and striking, black and white aerodynamic stylings. It looked like raw speed personified. It was a Swallow-tailed Kite (Elanoides forficatus), asmall hawk actually and a nimble predator known to swoop down and pluck small creatures like lizards, grasshoppers, frogs, snakes and mammals from the treetops. That I’d like to see. It is apparently so obsessed with speed it even drinks on the fly by skimming just above Bayou Liberty with its beak agape.
It’s a migratory bird that wisely spends our winter in the northern parts of South America and in the Amazon basin. During our spring it makes stops in Central America, Cuba and the Caribbean islands on its way to summer in the good old Southeastern U.S. where it mates and breeds in woodlands and wetlands. We are lucky to be so honored.
The property along the Bayou Liberty corridor is a perfect fit for the bird. If you look at a Google map of the area you can see it is largely wooded on both sides of the bayou, from the rural north to the Lake Pontchartrain marshes in the south. This is one of the reasons why our park enjoys roaming deer, Canadian Geese, fox, Great Blue Herons, alligators, and all sorts of other creatures who like to move under woodland cover. They also use Bayou Liberty like their drinking fountain.
A few days later I was lucky to see a half dozen of these Kites wheeling in the open air above the flagpole on our parade ground. They were probably taking a break from their nearby nests and doing some late afternoon hunting and cavorting in the waning light of the day. We have several kinds of bird habitat in the park and birdwatchers are always welcome. Of course, the open skies over the bayou are where most people can catch a glimpse of the largest and fastest flyers.
Probably the most familiar animal at Camp Salmen is the Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis),the bossy little “Prairie Dog of the Sky.”
“Squirrel” is right. I can’t think of another creature that so lives up to its name; they are the champions of indecision. I once watched one rashly run out in front of a car, catch himself, go back, change his mind and go back (in front of the car), go back then turn around and dive under the car anyway. Buddy-D chose a good name for his misdirected Saints fans.
As doubtful and indecisive as they seem here in the good old U.S.A. they are absolute international terrorists overseas. They are considered an invasive species that has largely displaced the kindly Red Squirrel in Olde England. The species is also on its way to dominating squirreldom in Italy, Ireland and other parts of Europe.
They are shifty-eyed compulsive and paranoid, known to hide seeds, nuts and berries in thousands of locations in a season. They even fake this activity if they think someone is watching. Our indolent squirrels at Camp Salmen Nature Park don’t bother. They spend summer and fall rifling cypress and pine trees, leaving a mess of sticky half-chewed cypress balls, pine bark, needles, seeds and stripped pine cones discarded on our boardwalks like chewed corn cobs.
Even though they are supposed to be kind of cute, their cuteness was lost on me some time ago. Instead of being the shy, retiring tree-dweller type, they can be quite boisterous and disruptive in the quiet, peaceful wood. During courtship season they bark incessantly and recklessly chase one another from branch to branch, gnaw on innocent trees, steal food from bird feeders, cause a ruckus by blundering into Blue Jay territory and trespass in human dwellings to vandalize — all while contemptuously flicking their tails at observers who stand aghast.
We don’t have wolves at Camp Salmen but our mollusks have to put up with the equivalent - the Rosy Wolf Snail (Euglandina rosea). These are vicious, slow-moving predators who prefer to consume other soft-bodied slow movers like slugs (“No shell, no fur, no claws, no bones - just pure protein. Yum!”). They can also slurp a snail right out of its shell, without seasoning, earning them another name: Cannibal Snail. Fortunately, most of our readers aren’t mollusks and have nothing to fear.
There were a lot of these snails in the neighborhood where I grew up and since they couldn’t outrun me, they did not escape my curiosity. (Maybe I couldn’t find anyone else who would play with me.) When you pick up one it draws up into its shell right away but gamely creeps back out to resume its hustle and bustle. They have curious little eyestalks, feelers, tasters and sniffers protruding from their business ends. These shrink and disappear when you trifle with them but quickly grow back as the animal resumes its normal operations, which is moving ever forward to find its next victim and meal.
The snail’s light-brown shell actually does have a rosy hue and is surprisingly lightweight and fragile. This light weight is combined with a relatively large two inch long “foot” that enables them to travel three times faster than their prey so they always win the “Fat Man Race.” We used to find silvery slime trails all over our patio in the morning. Apparently this wasn’t just meaningless meanderings; the snails were actually on the hunt the night before. Where these paths converged is probably where they sensed prey with their sensors and took off in “hot” pursuit to follow a trail to the target. No wonder I saw all those empty shells lying around. You have to love their technique. It involves using that giant foot to wrestle the victim, stabbing him with a “radula” and extractingprotein, other details are not suitable for a family newspaper. You’ll stop thinking of them as some kind of cute creature from Mother Nature’s pixie garden.
After I saw one crossing the road the other day I remembered my old association with them and determined to learn more (I love the Internet). I found out a lot of new stuff about them but didn’t find out the one specific thing I asked myself when I saw that snail: Why was it crossing the road?
TIME IS VISIBLE AT CAMP SALMEN - Part 1
Besides the trees and wildlife, layers of time can be seen at Camp Salmen Nature Park.
The land itself reflects the geologic past. Bayou Liberty was formed when the sea level lowered a couple of million years ago, uncovered the land and let rainwater find a way to channel to the sea. Much of the topography in the area is from the huge quantities of Ice Age melt water, silt, sand and gravel carried from the far north by the Pearl River.
Also during the Ice Age, sea levels were lower and the people later mistakenly called “Indians” walked into North America from Asia. They eventually migrated to these parts and lived on the banks of the bayou and hunted in the marshes. They left shell, stone, bone and pottery pieces on the ground in piles called ’”middens” which became evidence of their thousands of years of occupation.
It is said the presence of these natives in the neighborhood was one of the reasons Joseph Laurent built his trading post here in the early 1800s. It is now called the “Salmen Lodge.” Of course, La Liberte’ was one of the first Europeans to come to this bayou nearly three quarters of a century before. Many of his fellow Frenchmen followed his example and also produced building products – lumber, charcoal, pine tar and bricks from the forest.
Laurent was a trader who used his schooner “Marguerite” to carry the settler’s products and produce to the growing city across the lake and bring back manufactured goods. He probably used the wide part of the bayou in front of his store to turn his schooner around to make it ready for another trip. He also evidently made bricks on his property and you can still view his clay pit remains. The building continued as the neighborhood store for almost a century. Hidden in the ground around it are old privy holes, the footings of out buildings, cisterns and many other artifacts that would be an archaeologist’s dream.
Over the course of the next 150 years, the community on the bayou became known as “Bonfouca” and the Frenchmen were gradually replaced with native-born Creoles. Then something new happened just a few miles to the east. A railroad from Mississippi to New Orleans was built in the 1880s and the project’s work camp became the town of Slidell. Fritz Salmen and his enterprising family carried on the traditions of Northshore forest products and put the town on the map with their highly successful building products industry. Eventually they bought this land, extracted its timber and clay, and changed it by leaving clay pits, railroad beds, brick fragments and the beginnings of a new forest. In next week’s column learn about changes to the land when the Boy Scouts and St. Tammany Parish government made an appearance.
CAMP SALMEN’S HISTORY - STILL HERE TO SEE - Part 2
Last time we learned that Salmen Lodge was Joseph Laurent’s old Indian trading post and was a part of the “ancient” Creole community of Bonfouca on Bayou Liberty. The community was nearly a century and a half old when the upstart town of Slidell showed up on the railroad tracks nearby. Since then, more history happened at Camp Salmen Nature Park and more evidence of time’s passing was left behind.
Fritz Salmen was a forward-thinking man who believed in putting his land to good use after extracting its timber and clay. He had numerous land development projects like farms, pastureland and housing. His idea of donating some of it to the Boy Scouts of America led to a considerable amount of infrastructure being emplaced over the next 60 years for the enjoyment of nearly 400,000 boys.
Remnants of the Boy Scout Era are everywhere in the park. The woods contain traces of wire, plumbing and lumber from out buildings once scattered around the encampment. Some of the trails follow the paths between them. Their first cafeteria left a pile of stove coal and the newer cafeteria left a slab that sprouted a big, brand new picnic pavilion, the centerpiece of the new parish park. The “Leaning Oak” on the parade ground was propped up with a couple of poles to hold it up for generations of climbers. The old water tower looms, rusting overhead, as its water well still functions nearby. The bayou bank has remnants of the scout’s canoe dock and their old boat slip hides in brush. The mound of dirt over the swimming pool is now a lovely picnic area and curbing under a nearby oak shows the location of the previous ‘20s era pool. Mary’s Grotto demonstrates the care taken for the scout’s spiritual development.
Bridging into the new era of St. Tammany Parish parks is the monument honoring Fritz Salmen for his generous donation to the scouts. A new flagpole represents the scout’s patriotic ideals. A brand new copy of their old amphitheater will continue to provide a place for the spirit of community.
A winding new paved Parish Parkway meanders through the woods to replace old Camp Salmen Rd. There are bricks, bricks and bricks — everywhere — mostly buried. Nearly a century of brick making took place here, in addition to brick rubble from Slidell’s brick manufacturing heritage, and demolished brick scout buildings. The place might as well be called “Camp Brick.”
For the future, the young “upstart” Slidell continues to grow out from its beginnings on the railroad track and now surrounds Camp Salmen where our Nature Park remains a valuable island of refuge and an important link to the past.
For people who really get into nature, who just want to embrace all that lovely lush, green foliage and roll around in it, think again. If you can’t keep your distance and avoid reaching out to touch and feel, a dose of poison ivy might be your reward.
These are problem plants:
Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is the most common; it’s a vine that typically grows up tree trunks but can also show up in bushes and in other unsuspected places. It has pointy leaves in clusters of three in various sizes and they turn a vivid red in the fall. The vine clings to the tree with tiny hair-like roots that are also poisonous. If you are a committed tree hugger or one of those people who just has to bound up the next tree you see, remember this saying: “Hairy vine – no friend of mine.”
Poison Oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) is a shrub with leaves that are also in clusters of three. The leaves are similar in pattern to those of the white oak tree. I suggest you look these up and remember the shape.
Useful sayings associated with these two plants include: "Leaves of three; let it be" or “One, two, three - don't touch me."
Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is a shrub or small tree (of up to 30 ft. in height!) typically found in swamps. It has leaf clusters of 7-13 leaves and is considered far more toxic than the other two. Staying out of the swamp should be no problem for most people but those that do need to memorize what this plant looks like and avoid contact.
All it takes is one innocent brush against any one of these plants. Their leaves, stems, vines, seeds, flowers and bark contain an oil called URUSHIOL (oo-roo-shee-awl). Its a chemical that quickly seeps into the pores of the skin and causes irritation, blisters, itching and even death if inhaled in quantities of smoke.
For many people, a patch of infected skin may itch for a couple of days then quickly heal. Some people aren’t even affected. Stores sell inexpensive creams to temporarily relieve the itch; more expensive creams actually draw the urushiol right out of the pores and hasten the healing process. Some people are known to wipe themselves down with watered-down bleach as a preventative. If it gets too bad, please go see a doctor. Long sleeves and gloves also help protect but the best strategy is stay away!If you would like us to show you what these plants look like, please visit us at Camp Salmen Nature Park. We’d be glad to show you around.
I spotted a few Lovebugs (Plecia nearctica) loitering over the grass the other day and absently thought, “Oh, its springtime, they’re back. No, wait, aren’t they supposed be here in late summer?” I looked them up – there are actually TWO crops of these loathsome creatures every year – April-May and August-September. UNHHH. I guess I had tied to put them out of my mind.
At their worst, which is about every year, I can’t imagine a more worthless creature on the face of the planet. There can be thousands and thousands of them, flying aimlessly around, landing all over our cars, our boats, our food, our fresh paint and us and they stink to high heaven. At least they don’t (and can’t) bite. They supposedly only dabble a little nectar and pollen and live only three days or so (though their swarm lasts a month). The female, being the larger of the two, usually takes the lead, lives longer and gets to drag around a corpse for a day or so.
They are almost of no benefit to anyone or anything – except the decomposers that deal with them in the end (though they, themselves are decomposers, feasting on decaying leaf matter in their previous larval form). Nothing much eats them alive because they are too acidic and this acid dries and scars the leading parts of speeding vehicles. Research indicates one reason they are attracted to automobile grillwork is they like engine exhaust and fumes, which is why they are all over our highways. This fascination with fumes is also why they like to get stuck in fresh paint. They also love the color white, which explains why they cling all over our white boats, especially those with fuming engines.
The insect is an invader from Central America, having crossed into Texas around 1911 and has since spread across the Gulf Coast. It is believed their numbers have been limited by a parasitic fungi, so I say, “Hooray the parasitic fungi! We can’t have more parasitic fungi!”
They are known as the meekest birds yet they are boldly present all over Camp Salmen, grazing by the dozens on field and trail, fretfully bounding for the trees at the least provocation. Startling hikers by suddenly flushing from the brush. It’s the Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), one of the most widespread and numerous bird species in North America. In spite of their reputation of timidity, I suspect they are secret exhibitionists.
You can identify them from their buff, grey-brown color, the black spots on their sides, red legs and the beautiful v-shaped white trim visible on their tails when they fly. When they fly, they emit what I can only describe as a wheezy, squeaky chortle. This whistling sound is actually made by the action of their feathers. When the mood is just right in the evening they also make a moaning “coo” that gives them the “mourning” part of their name.
Their little bald-looking, round head with black, beady round eyes and pointy little black beak give them a non-serious, almost twerp-like look; they are definitely not “Angry Bird” material. To further their non-threatening demeanor, they feed exclusively on seeds and rocks. Yes, rocks. The bird isn’t stupid. They can be seen perusing small pebbles looking for just the right size to swallow and hold in their “craw” or “crop.” This is sort of a pre-stomach muscle, a wide spot in their throat where these rocks help grind the seeds before they move on down the line.
Another thing they do with this crop is perfectly gross. They produce something generously called “crop milk” which they feed to their nesting young by coughing it down their throats. This makes me feel lucky I wasn’t born a bird.
Another reason I’m happy to not be a dove is that generations of people have been making sport of them by taking them home for dinner. The massive harvesting of this natural resource can only be accomplished with their full cooperation. They breed often and in great numbers. We seem to be doing our part very well at Camp Salmen because they are now everywhere.
I saw a shad fish shagging out of Bayou Liberty the other day and wondered if he was trying to avoid an encounter with the resident top predator, an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) named “Albert.” He may be “King of the Bayou” but you couldn’t normally tell by looking at him because usually looks just like a floating log.
Funny thing about how differently people react to the presence of ‘gators. Some live in mortal fear of them, some want to feed them. Either response can result in the ‘gator’s early demise or removal. It does not have to be so.
Millions of alligators inhabit the swamps and marshes of the Gulf Coast states, particularly Louisiana and Florida, where the scaly beast is a colorful part of the lore. Although the Bayou State contains twice as many wild gators, the Sunshine State can claim one dark statistic we cannot – there have been twenty-one human deaths by alligator recorded there and none in Louisiana. Part of the problem is that Florida simply has many more humans, a disproportionate number living where ‘gators live and they tend to recreate in the state’s plentiful fresh water lakes. It could also be our coastal people are more rural, familiar with and respectful of the reptile. The situation in Florida seems like a good argument against building subdivisions in wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, all this has helped give the beast a fearsome, and undeserved national reputation.
WARNING: DO NOT FEED ALLIGATORS
An un-fed, wild alligator will remain wild and leave people alone. They have plenty to eat in nature, especially with all the fish in Bayou Liberty, and are naturally scared of people. An alligator would rather swim away and hide that confront a big, old dangerous human. But alligators who are fed by humans may think “food” when they see people. These ‘gators can become a nuisance and must be removed or killed. We want Albert to stay just where he is because he is part of the natural cycle of life in our Nature Park and so we don’t feed him and won’t let anyone else even try. By the way, an even bigger ‘gator cruised up the bayou the other day, apparently to come a courtin’. I think “Albert” may be an “Albertina.”
I’ve had to put up with red fire ants since my mom and dad turned me loose in short pants. For half a century the South American invaders were a well-established fact of life and had become part of Louisiana lore. The best a southern boy could learn to do was watch where he was standing to avoid the multiple bites that came out of their mounds. Sometimes that wasn’t enough and they’d surprise you by finding a way to get at you any way.
Last Year at Camp Salmen red ant mounds were plentiful, especially on our lawns where people go. Only careful, diligent treatment suppressed them but they never were eliminated and their mounds routinely popped back up. I had gotten used to their annual rhythms and was anticipating their Summer Offensive when, miracle of miracles and glory be, they began to disappear from the property! For me, this is big environmental news.
Last year I noticed that treated “dead” fire ant mounds continued to be occupied by mysterious, tiny black ants that scurried around in the wreckage with a rapid, erratic motion. At first the experts I consulted had no explanation but now we know these are another South American invader, Crazy Ants (Nylanderia fulva), and they are spreading across St. Tammany Parish and the Gulf South, steadily displacing red ant populations as they go. They are also known as Raspberry Ants, named after the fellow who first described them in 2002 but I’m sure everybody will end up calling them by their obvious name.
I have written before about the royal mess we’ve made of Louisiana’s ecology by transplanting non-native species all over the planet then letting ‘er rip. Maybe what has happened is an accidental environmental victory – or maybe not. Scientists are trying to catch up with this new phenomenon and learn more about the ant and how it fits in to Louisiana’s reinvented ecology. One question keeps coming to my mind - how do they do that, especially against such a ferocious, well-placed adversary?
So far I like them just fine, more power to ‘em. They’ve quietly replaced red ants, make no mounds and don’t bite. But they do seem to have an affinity to humanity’s electrical systems, even those found in cars, which could be a draw back. There are also no poisons or controls known to stop them, yet. At Camp Salmen, Mother Nature is surprising us all the time!
You wouldn’t think it, but we have billions of crustaceans running around Camp Salmen. No, not crawfish, shrimp, lobsters or crabs, it’s the one we don’t pay much attention to because they are so small and stay down low - the lowly Doodlebug (Armadillidium vulgare). It’s a little quarter inch long isopod also known as a pill bug, sow bug, woodlouse or rollie-pollie. Some consider them nothing more than “harmless garden pests” and actually seek to kill them with garden pesticides! Personally, I have a soft spot for them because I’ve known them since I was a wee lad plus I’ve developed a reverence for anything that’s been on the planet for 300 hundred million years, a time before the dinosaurs, back when they were making coal.
And what do doodle bugs do? They are decomposers, “detritivores” who eat detritus, the leftovers of life, discarded leaves, mown grass, fallen limbs, etcetera. They help turn this stuff into soil. And how do they do it? Watch one closely; they go “doodle, doodle, doodle” as they trundle about on their fourteen legs looking for detritus. When they find it, they use a specially adapted eighth pair of legs to stuff what passes for their faces with detritus. What comes out the other end is soil.
When they get frightened they have enough segments to roll themselves into a tiny little balls. This is known as their “pill mode” (thus the nameArmadillidium, as in armadillo). They stay that way until they think it’s safe, and then they unroll themselves like tiny little Transformers and resume their merciless hunt for detritus.
In case you’re still not impressed, go on-line and check out the ghastly Bathynomus giganteualso known as the Giant Isopod,Mr. Doodlebug’s close cousin. These are four pound pink versions of Armadillidium thateat whale carcasses and whatever and whoever else drifts down to the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean. I doubt if they taste like lobster. You’ll be glad all we have are doodlebugs.
I was bent over, handling clumps of old pine straw mulch when a large brown spider came out from underneath. I said, “Hello” because I’d seen many of these spiders before and knew they were harmless; though I have no keen desire to just fetch one up and be friends. This one looked different though. I noticed she was carrying something quite remarkable and bizarre slung under her abdomen: a big, beautiful, blue orb. And it was the most astonishing color of blue – was it azure or cerulean? At first I thought it might have been some kind of bird’s egg she had stolen. She guarded it jealously and drug it around, stuck to her backside. I decided it might be her egg. I said, “Goodbye” and we quickly parted company as I went back to work.
This apparently was an encounter with a type known as a Wolf Spider, from the family Lycosidae, meaning, “wolf.” I once knew one of these who lived comfortably just over the water in my boat shed and grew to be a tremendous size, largely because it was in a protected spot and the fact he/she lived for years. Like all spiders it was a carnivore and I wondered if it also fished.
Wolf spiders aren’t big on building elaborate webs but they have the equipment, spinnerets and glands, and can eject enough silk to line a tunnel hideout and even make a trap door for it. To compensate for their lack of an ensnarement strategy, their capture and kill technique is to suddenly bolt out of their hole and pounce on a victim to deliver a venomous bite. (I didn’t say they don’t bite, they just can’t bite humans very well because our skin to too thick.) With six eyes, they have excellent vision. These reflect very brightly when you shine a light at them after dark. They also have a very acute sense of touch so they can say to their victims, “All the better to feel you in my arms, my dearie.”
Another thing they can do with their web material is creating those egg balls. All the ones I’ve seen in the literature are grayish, so I guess Camp Salmen is lucky to have Lycosidae with such specially colored ones. In fact, I invite the public to come looking for them, like Easter eggs. The parent spider keeps her tail raised high so it doesn’t scrape the egg ball on the ground. When the babies hatch, the adult spider, which has been so ugly to everyone else, turns into an exemplary parent as the babies crawl on top and ride royally around, enjoying her protection.
When Camp Salmen shifts from drab winter to vibrant spring, the first flash of color is from the red seeds of the Swamp Maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii,also called the Drummond or Red Maple). This is just not a Louisiana thing, the U. S. Forest Service declares this is North America’s most common deciduous tree and grows everywhere east of the Mississippi. It’s a highly adaptable species that can inhabit a wide range of conditions, from high on mountainsides to down in the swamps. Unfortunately for Louisiana, many of our swamps are dying. Levees built along the Mississippi River have cut off the annual overflows that nourished these wetlands and provided fresh silt. As a result, soils are getting soupy and Swamp Maples are falling over left and right.
Elsewhere on the continent, the tree has become something of an “internal invader.” It is thought these trees were in smaller proportions to other trees when Europeans got to America and are steadily taking over forests at the expense of oaks and pines. Amazingly, they finish their growing season in the same spectacular fashion as they began, by turning their fall leaves to the same crimson color as the seeds.
The tree shows different personalities to the different animals that use them for food. White-tailed deer and certain kinds of butterfly producing caterpillars love to eat the tree’s leaves, however, these leaves can kill a horse. First they get depressed (horses get depressed?) and then lethargic and eventually fall into a coma and die. Watch out, horse lovers! On a lighter note, if you time the tree’s season just right, you can poke a hole in the bark and get a sap that makes one of my favorites – maple syrup.
More on the unusual seeds - They have a graceful, curving wing to one side, sort of like a rigid insect’s wing. They’re angled in such a way that they spin when they fall, like a whirligig or helicopter. This helps them remain aloft so the winds can take them further from the tree. Full sized maples can produce a million seeds. If you’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time you’ll see a gust of wind knock hundreds of these seeds loose from a high branch and they fall in a beautiful, sunlit shower of spinning seeds. They are also a favorite of children who delight in exploring this phenomenon by picking up and flying the little helicopters over and over again.
One morning at Camp Salmen I was awakened by the sound of a running engine outside my window. It was 4:30 AM and dark. This was totally unexpected and I immediately thought it was as good a time as any for a nighttime equipment theft. As I went to the front of the building to look out the window, my inner Barney Fife said, “This is it, this is why they hired me to be the watchdog.” I figured the intruders were probably after the Bobcat excavator and were maneuvering to grab its trailer. At the same time I heard the solid “ker-chunk” of my apartment door closing and locking behind me. I suddenly realized I not only failed to carry the key, I forgot to put on any clothes. The situation suddenly seemed very different.
Fortunately, the headlights outside shifted around and the miscreants disappeared around the corner. I still had time to catch them. I found a spare key, got back in my apartment, got on some clothes and called the cops. The intruders were either still working on the Bobcat or were long gone.
Officer Friendly was at the back gate faster than I could hustle the fifty yards to get it open and she had plenty of back-up. Suddenly there were four police cruisers flooding into the park, gunning the big V-8 engines in their Crown Victoria Police Interceptors and illuminating every lane, driveway and trail with their searchlights. No buggers. They certainly had had enough time to flee.
At least it was a good test run. The cops were quite prompt and anxious to serve and protect. “Whoever” had apparently let themselves out the way they came in, probably using the combination we had given out to too many tradesmen during the past year.
Later that morning I was informed it was the mowing contractor. They had dropped by and let themselves in to retrieve a spool of weed trimmer string needed for an early start on their day. A call would have both warned me and been and unwelcome interruption to my sleep. Barney Fife learned a few lessons too.
res·ur·rec·tion[rez-uh-rek-shuhn] - noun
the act of rising from the dead; rising again, as from decay, disuse, etc.; revival.
This column has previously described the remarkable cloud of life hovering around the magnificent Southern Live Oak. The tree hosts a wondrous variety of other species: birds and insects that rest or restlessly hunt among its branches, creatures that take up residence in its nooks, crannies and knot holes, plants that prefer to grow only in its shade or hang from its branches like Spanish moss or climb its trunk like many kinds of vines do or intimately cling to its bark like mosses, lichens and the mysterious Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides).
Imagine a life spent mostly dead. The fern actually stays shriveled up, curled up and brown most of the time. Only after there has been enough rain does the plant respond by uncurling and bursting back to life, all bushy, lush and green again. High humidity sustains it awhile longer. It then dries, loosing up to 97% of its moisture content (most plants die after losing about 10%). Its estimated it could remain that way for a century and still revive but it rains too much around here for us to ever find out.
The fern decorates only the upper surfaces of the tree’s knarly bark, expecting rain and sunlight from the sky above. And it hosts its own ecology too. It accumulates a kind of soil at its feet, made from its own shedding fronds, its roots, mosses and other residue from the other life on the tree. In fact, it takes many years for the bark to accumulate enough of this “dirt” to get a crop of ferns started. No doubt within this mix is a whole assemblage of critters and other organisms that depend on this mini-environment. It all clings tenaciously in a precarious position high above the ground.
Occasionally, a fallen limb carries a chunk of this little world with it. I’ve had one of these sitting in the shade behind my house for quite some time. The whole aggregation holds together, dies and revives over and over gain, just as expected, just like it’s intended.
Resurrection ferns doing their thing on the rain side of some Live Oak branches.
Someone just upstream from Camp Salmen is routinely tossing their carefully prepared bags of trash into Bayou Liberty. I’ve found many of these over the past year or so – seven on our property in just one week. They must be strewn up and down the bayou on our neighbor’s property too. Because these bags contain mostly empty soda pop cans they float until they hang up on the bank. They don’t travel long or far before the sun rots the flimsy bag and everything spills out to multiply this sin against nature.
The bags are all the same. The person doing this fills a standard plastic grocery bag with Diet Coke cans. They might add a couple of empty food containers – cranberry products, juice, snack cakes, junk food du jour - and lots and lots of white cigarette butts, usually packed separately in the bag. The bag’s handles are neatly tied together and the package consigned to the beautiful bayou.
If you dissect a few of these bags, they become little, floating mini-autobiographies. So what does this person say about themselves? Well, they’re actually pretty neat and organized, for being such a slob. They’re self-centered, only wanting neatness in their own surroundings and not caring for the world and the others who have to share it with them. They must think enough of themselves to try to keep the weight off with the diet drinks and they try to eat something healthy with an occasional fruit-based snack. However, their copious cigarette consumption and their bizarre form of littering betrays the fact that while their wheel may be turning, the hamster is dead.
So who is it? I can’t imagine anyone with property on the bayou doing this. There’s too much investment for living in such a beautiful place to turn around and trash it. Maybe it’s a thoughtless workman on a long job? A homeless person camped out somewhere upstream? Whoever it is he or she has an extreme contempt for nature and God’s creation and a certain poverty of their soul.
The crown jewels of Camp Salmen Nature Park are the beautiful Southern Live Oak trees (Quercus virginiana) that grace the grounds. Most of the oldest and finest representatives of this species are scattered around what is called “Camp Ridge” on Bayou Liberty, a part of the park where most of the Boy Scout’s buildings of old Camp Salmen once stood.
This species of oak is a tree of superlatives as they have massive trunks and branches that span large areas of ground. It’s awesome to think about the amount of tonnage they hold up in the air. Their ages easily exceed a couple of centuries. One can imagine Joseph Laurent himself taking respite under one of these stately oaks while working on his trading post (later named the Salmen Lodge) in the early 1800s.
The tree has other remarkable traits. They are an evergreen and only loose a minor amount of their leaves each year. The fallen leaves of more mature trees are somewhat toxic and discourage undergrowth beneath the tree. The tree’s wood is HARD and will challenge any saw. Fallen limbs can remain intact for years. Legend has it that sailing ship carpenters favored the tree’s curved branches for the bow stem and other critical framework. And, of course, there is often plentiful Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) draping from their branches. It is a spectacular sight to see this backlit by the late afternoon sun.
Spanish moss isn’t the only organism hitching a ride. Each tree has its own little ecology hovering around it. Several species of vine depend on the tree to hold them up to the sunlight. Resurrection ferns sprout from the branches and glow an emerald green after it rains. Knot-holes provide homes for birds, bees, squirrels, and snakes and the knarly bark provides places for predator and prey to play a miniature and deadly game of “hide and hunt” between birds and insects.
Some of the favorite oaks pose magnificently for the park’s visitors. The “Order of the Arrow Oak” is the centerpiece of our nature garden. The main parking lot has a specimen called a “Hat-rack Oak” because it spreads wide at the top as it probably grew out of thick underbrush. “The Leaning Oak” on the parade ground has got to be one of the most popular attractions in the park. Some thoughtful person propped it up many years ago with a couple of iron poles so it wouldn’t fall over. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have been drawn to it over the decades because it is so easy to climb. I call my favorite oak “The Cathedral Oak.” It leans out of the old clay pit used to build the Trading Post and makes a beautiful, arching space that you can sit inside. Find a comfortable branch and contemplate the Live Oak, its beauty and the wonder of it all.
The morning sum finds its way through the humid air and the Spanish moss hanging from a Live Oak.
In today’s modern “techno” world, with all its gadgets and hitherto unknown and, at times, strange social interactions, something has appeared on the scene called “geocaching,” (geo – meaning “the earth” and cache, like stash, meaning “to conceal” or hide away). It is a pastime centered on the prime piece of equipment required for a modern lifestyle: the smart phone. It seems these devices can access the Global Positioning System and tell you exactly where you are on the face of the planet. Combine that with a good old fashioned game of hide and seek or treasure hunt and there you go. There is even a website explaining this elaborate hobby where one leaves behind messages and trinkets in small, discrete weatherproof packages for others to find. The site even sells plastic hollow logs for hiding one’s stash in the woods.
We’ve known the geocachers have been lurking around the park for some time. They’re a secretive bunch, that’s the nature of the game. I’ve come across their hidden “caches” a number of times and they are usually reasonably well hidden. I’ve even had exasperated “cachers” blatantly ask me if I knew where a cache might be found. That kind of takes the fun out of it, doesn’t it? Two new packages appeared in the park the other day that were not at all usual.
One was sitting under a pine tree. It was larger than others we’d seen, wrapped in “survivalists” camouflage tape and poorly concealed. The next day a co-worker found an even larger one in a military ammo can. It was not concealed at all, just sitting next to the trail. Anyone, especially a curious child, could have walked up and opened it.
This is also the “Age of Paranoia.” I haven’t been the same since the Tylenol scare. Since the 9/11 disaster, villains have come up with the most dastardly, bizarre notions, like their ideas came from a “Batman” movie. Out of concern and responsibility for the public and with what was perhaps an over-abundance of caution, as we public servants are wont to do, we called the Sherriff’s Department to report the two suspicious packages. Why not? Local law enforcement was happy to be of help and we might have gotten to watch them blow up a couple of carelessly hidden geocaches.
The Sheriff’s duty supervisor considered the evidence. While it was known there was geocaching in the park, there WERE these two relatively large, flagrantly unconcealed packages in a suspicious military style sitting out in the open. Of course, he consulted his smart phone. The Geocache site explained there were several caches recently stashed around Camp Salmen Nature Park. The supervisor opened up the ammo can and he and his partner had a good laugh. They thanked us before they left
An hour later a lady came to the office door to report a strange thing she saw while strolling in the park – an unconcealed ammo can by the trail. Would we consider checking it out or maybe calling the police…?
There are many layers of history at Camp Salmen. The bayou and the land itself are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years old. Native Americans, after centuries of occupation, left shell and pottery fragments in the ground. The story of European and American settlement echoes up and down the bayou and is represented by our old 1807 trading post. The landscape was altered in many ways by natural resource extraction and storms. More recently, the Scouts built a campground for nearly a half-million boys. Now St. Tammany Parish government is “repurposing” the land as a nature park for public enjoyment.
Here’s a little story about one of those layers.
Next to the path down the hill to the Swampwalk, under a large oak tree, is a small patch of ground with the black, crumbly remains of a coal pile. Camp Salmen had its beginnings in the 1920s and apparently there was a kitchen located here that used the cooking technology of the time – a coal-fired stove. For some reason, broken glass, ceramic bowls, plates, platters and cups are also in this pile. The kitchen staff must have had a jolly time smashing unworthy dinnerware. I imagine the scouts could be a pretty rambunctious bunch around such delicate things.
Interestingly, some of the fragments of this dinnerware are marked with the logo of the old Grunewald Hotel in New Orleans. It was a big, fine building built in 1893 with Fritz Salmen’s bricks. This must have been a pretty nice order for Fritz’s relatively young brick manufacturing company. The building was renamed the Roosevelt Hotel in 1923 and the proprietors apparently donated their obsolete bowls and plates to the new scout camp on the other side of the lake.
In later years the scout’s food preparation and serving moved up the hill to a new cafeteria, also since demolished. Most of the former scouts who visit the park today ask, “Where’s the old cafeteria?” Their appetites must have been a significant part of their memories of the place. St. Tammany Parish used the cafeteria’s old slab to build a beautiful new picnic pavilion for its new nature park and people continue the tradition of using this location for eating.
With its nature walks and playground, Camp Salmen is now home to family fun and adventure. Children had enjoyed the grounds for decades and still do today. Though the kitchen and the Boy Scout camp are long gone, Camp Salmen may become a playground for archaeologists someday as well.
They’re baaack, my old “friends” the Buck Moth caterpillars (Hemileuca maia). They love to eat fresh, green Live Oak tree leaves in spring and can be seen grouped in small, knotted clusters at the ends of the tree’s branches. Soon they will mass together on the tree’s trunk and have a little pep rally. This is when they do a weird thing, bobbing their heads in spastic unison, as if saying “One, two, three - hup! One, two, three - hup! Go team!” After breaking up the rally they spread out to bulk up on more vegetation to go out into the world and make a nuisance of themselves.
Well, more than a mere nuisance, they each bristle with dozens of hollow, sharp spines that work like little hypodermic needles and will inject painful venom into anyone who even lightly brushes against them. I’ve accidently been stung by these little monsters enough times to be tempted to crush them between a couple of bricks on sight, but there are too many, some too high in the tree and besides, this might be contrary to the whole nature park thing. Besides the stings, they become fat and juicy and squishing them is most unpleasant. They are best avoided altogether.
I remember their population explosions in the 90s when they were everywhere - floors, sidewalks and walls; inside and outside. They hurt children and pets and pretty much anyone who wasn’t being careful about watching where the things might turn up. A quick check around the park’s Live Oaks today reveals that aren’t too many at this time, so we’re probably safe.
When they are ready, they make a summertime transformation into buck moths. Their moth form is easy to recognize - bold, black and white wings and a bright fuzzy little red posterior. I saw them in unusual numbers last summer, flitting about the woods and blundering up and down the trails. They are kinda cute and have a completely different personality than before.
We have on a new amphitheater at Slidell’s Camp Salmen Nature Park on beautiful Bayou Liberty.
First off, didn’t I mean to write “ampi-theater”, like it’s pronounced? I tried, but spell check kept red-lining it until I got it right. Well then, what the heck is an amphitheater anyway, isn’t it some sort of Roman thing where they fought gladiators to the death or sent early Christians to the lions? No. And yes. A little research reveals those sordid events took place in what we now call stadiums, or in the plural, stadia, where the audience sits all around the action. In an amphitheater the audience sits in a semi-circle on one side, but everyone gets a good view. The Greeks, who came before the Romans, were into tragedy, comedy and satyr on stage and used amphitheaters for their theatre.
You’ll notice our amphitheater will be excellent for that – theatrical events plus a plethora (meaning: a bunch) of other things – weddings, award ceremonies, preach’in, family reunions, poetry readings, music, educating and watching regattas on the bayou, to name just a few. I’m counting on the public’s creative imaginations to come up with a few new ideas.
The amphitheater has three long rows of seats for around 150 people and is nestled among shady oaks, overlooking the bayou in a crook of the bluff. It looks a lot like the amphitheater the Boy Scouts had at old Camp Salmen because it was built in the exact same spot. There recently was a Grand Opening and Dedication for this and the nearby Kid’s Connection Playground (more about that later) in April.
Me, I plan on using the facility for what it seems best used for: sitting in the shade, gazing up at the Spanish moss hanging from the ancient live oaks and watching the symphony of life in the bayou.
- Camp Salmen Nature Park logo…
All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey (“California Dreamin’,” Mamas and Papas).
This musical phrase keeps popping up in my head over and over again these days. It’s the dead of winter and nature appears to have fallen on hard times. Indeed, death is everywhere, at least for plants; all the annual species now lay rotting at our feet. Animals stay hunkered down and appear to have made themselves scarce. Fewer people are visiting the park. It is indeed grey, wet and dreary. Splendid if you’re a duck.
Did anyone get the license plate number of that planetoid that whacked Earth five billion years ago? The silly little 23-degree tilt it left us with has made a big difference to what happens here. The whole history of life on this planet has never been without having to accommodate this structural irregularity. But it has adapted to it handsomely.
Its remarkable to contemplate, from today’s perspective, the contrast this weather has with the other distinct parts of a year – spring’s wild burst of life and greenery, summer’s heat, humidity and parched dry spells, fall’s refreshing winds and color. For now, the weather is about as winter-like as it gets in south Louisiana – cold and relentlessly cloudy and wet. I suppose it has its own beauty but that’s mostly hard to see from inside the house.
Though we are almost a month away from when spring commences, there are yet signs. Clover is coming up everywhere. I saw the first spreading, green thorny leaves of a couple of thistles yesterday. Birds continue to flit from tree to tree, staying limbered up for spring’s sing-along I guess. I know buds will pop, the first green leaves will emerge from the muddy swamp floor, March winds will blow and the sun will shine. It was ever thus, Gus.
At the far end of the park, almost all the way back up Parish Parkway to the gatehouse on Gause Blvd. is the Pine Savannah Boardwalk. It’s also the northern end of Camp Salmen’s trail system and makes a quarter mile loop. This is land where there was actually open pasture fifty years ago has since been allowed to grow back into woods. Our idea was to recreate a type of forest that was prevalent on the Northshore – Upland Longleaf Pine Savannah. We did this by taking out a considerable portion of the trees to let in more sunshine. We also did some careful burning and planted longleaf pine.
The magnificent Longleaf was once the prevalent tree in these parts. It was the result of the plant community sorting itself out over millions of years. Now Slash Pine is everywhere because they grow faster and therefore, insure a profit for the landowner in his or her lifetime.
The pine savannah is an open-woodland – plenty of space between the trees with grass, ferns and shrubs covering the ground in between. Periodic fires that swept through this forest type once sustained its ecology. This we know from the layers of burnt material buried over the centuries in local soils and the fact that most of the plants that evolved here thrive with fire. We’ve short-circuited the whole system by building suburbs and farms on top of it and then becoming rather strict about burning.
Peppered here and there in this ecological assemblage are clumps of a vicious animal eater, the carnivorous Pitcher Plant. This curiosity of the Plant Kingdom, a phylum that is used to being bullied and eaten by animals, has turned the tables. It lures anything with legs that can get inside by making interesting odors. An overly curious and greedy creature finds a slippery slope and almost certain death by drowning in the rainwater on the bottom. The plant is more than happy to absorb its rotting carcass.
The pitcher part of the Pitcher plant into which overly curious insects fall to their deaths.
In the fall there is a certain odor in the woods at Camp Salmen. It is detectable only here and there, now and again. I’ve never found it particularly pleasant since it reminds me of dirty socks. My nose comes up with flavor note names like “pukey” or “sickly-sweet.” You can catch whiffs of it around rotting leaf litter in humid areas and lingers in the air until spring.
A fellow employee at the park has also known this same smell for years. Since he’s a longtime outdoorsman it has a completely different set of connotations to him - brisk autumn weather and the promise of the hunt. He likes it so much it gives him a charge.
Until recently, neither one of us knew exactly what the source of this smell was and didn’t give it much thought but I’ve begun to look for its source in earnest in areas where the smell is strongest. I have yet to see any flowers, fruits or visible fungus that accounts for it.
LSU mycologist (fungus scientist) Meredith Blackwell advises it is probably a type of stinkhorn mushroom. There are apparently two types in the park. We have plenty of the version called Stinkhorn clathracethat has a very strong, musty odor. Apparently I’m looking for the type called Stinkhorn phallace which I’ve yet to give a positive I.D. to with sight and smell. On-line descriptions show it to be a grotesque, repulsive organism only capable of attracting flies.
It has become an obsession to find one of these. I’m not sure what I’ll do when one finally turns up but I know for sure I won’t be eating it.
Joseph Laurant probably took the advice of the local Choctaw when he built his trading post high on the bluff overlooking Bayou Liberty in 1807. The building still stands and though Hurricane Issac’s waters climbed the hill it could not mange to slip under the fence. However, there were plenty of other indications that this was some of the most water ever in the park. Our connection to Lake Pontchartrain covered the main road, leaving it strewn with debris and mud. The relentless rains left the woods bleeding water for days.
The Swampwalk near the bayou had the most remarkable sights – a half-inch mud deposit and a gang of huge logs left over from Katrina that floated OVER the walk and scattered to new locations. Fortunately, the boardwalk was built well and no boards were loosened from either these hazards or the time it spent underwater. Next door where the lower part of the Nature Garden was flooded the mulch was rolled up and the plants muddied but no other special problems.
On the opposite, north end of the park several pines were down, indicating especially heavy wind gusts were at play. Elsewhere in the park several “hangers” and “leaners” (damaged trees) were found over public areas necessitating the park’s closure for a week so they could be removed. Our storm preparations kept equipment and property out of harm’s way. Otherwise, a little chainsaw work, a lot of limb pick-up and a pass with the mower put the park back in shape.
The sight this week of a mother doe and her white-tailed fawn, plenty of birds, squirrels and raccoons indicate the park’s wildlife endured and survived the storm by simply hunkering down and patiently waiting for better weather.
This column is usually about the behaviors and characteristics of plants and animals at Camp Salmen Nature Park. Today’s article is about the main animal of the park and of the planet - Humans (Homo sapiens).
Our visitors are almost always good citizens – the kind of people who would want to visit a nature park. Families, couples, individuals and groups stroll serenely about, taking in the surroundings, enjoying nature. The young and feisty run and play. Some picnic in the shade of a tree or sit idly by the bayou. Some hit the trails and range further afield for the exercise. Some seem to make it a point of staying out of sight. That’s all right, as long as they follow national, state, parish and park rules. Most naturally know what to do: “leave nothing but footprints.” However, like rabbit scat on a stump, some leave telltale signs.
We keep the park free of litter so it’s noticeable when it happens; I guess some people just can’t help themselves. Clothing tags from freshly purchased duds for photo-shoots are a big item as are those little cellophane straw wrappers from kid’s drink boxes. Cigarette butts are always a biggie. Flicking them to the ground must be part of the ritual of the habit. My favorites are empty beverage containers flung too far off the trail to easily retrieve but close enough to be seen. I heartily thank all those who are responsible with the paper, wood, plastic, glass and metals they generate. Indeed, at the end of most of the days when we’ve had a lot of visitors you couldn’t tell they’d been here.
Kids seem to be fascinated with rocks. They gather them up from our parking lot and arrange them in little piles here and there or toss them about. Little boys love to rustle up sticks from the brush, swing them around for a while, then ditch them, usually near the Pavilion.
By and large I have high praise for “my people,” the public, our customers. We try to keep the park looking nice for them and are working to make it even better.
Readers might remember my story about mistaking bees for hornets. Well, this time there was no mistake. We were using a chainsaw to cut up a fallen tree and the noise apparently got to be too much for one of them. A single hornet came specifically to me and introduced himself with a punishing sting to my ear. I responded to this sneak attack by doing a little dance and exclaiming “Darn!” or some other such thing, as my ear got red and swollen. Fortunately, my partner didn’t get hit and saw where the animal came from – a dead, hollow cedar tree just steps away. There was an angry cloud of hornets hovering around a large hole at ground level. We abandoned the job.
Hornets are ugly characters. We call the variety we encountered “Ground Hornets” because they typically reside in a burrow and will ambush anyone who innocently gets too close to the hole. Generations of grass cutters have suddenly and rudely been appraised of their presence by sudden, painful stings. They are also known as Southern Yellow Jackets (Vespula squamosa) and are a type of predatory wasp that lives in colonies with a social structure similar to bees. Meats and other proteins are favorite foods. They also like sugars and will hover obnoxiously around trashcans to get at discarded soda pop. Supposedly they kill harmful insects and help maintain the “balance in nature.” Its hard to see how this is so if they themselves are harmful.
For the next few weeks we fretted about what to do about the hornet colony. We didn’t want them to hurt anyone else. We expected them to quiet down as winter set in but the weather stayed above freezing and they didn’t entirely cease their operations. Finally one day we decided to counter-attack. We screwed up our banzai courage and armed our selves with fast-acting poison sprays and moved in. We tossed a few sticks at the tree to draw them out. Nothing. We tried again. Nothing. Then I noticed a honeycomb pattern on the ground next to the tree. It was a shred of the hornet’s paper nest. If I had to guess, an armored Armadillo reached up into the tree and ripped out the nest and had himself an insectivore’s tasty meal of hornet larvae. So much for this problem resurfacing in the spring. Thank you Mr. Armadillo. Now I have a new saying: “Nature takes care of its own for those who patiently wait.” It’s that balance in nature thing.
DID NEW ORLEANS COME FROM A HOLE IN THE GROUND ON BAYOU LIBERTY?
There is a "mystery hole" at the heart of Camp Salmen next to the old Spanish era trading post on Bayou Liberty (a.k.a. “Salmen Lodge”). Its a brush-filled low spot that does not appear to be connected to the bayou in any geologic way and without a manual, its purpose can only be conjectured. There's talk of eventually building a pond in it, which might bring it full circle to how it originally began. How does it fit into the history of the bayou and the park?
Among the first white settlers on the bayou was a man named La Liberte' who showed up in French colonial records in the 1720s. He got the bayou named after him and with the other colonists figured out ways to make a living from the local pine trees. They produced lumber, charcoal, shingles, barrel staves and refined the sticky ooze bleeding from the trees into what were called “naval stores” - pitch and tar for waterproofing boat parts and other things. They fired clay dug from the ground for bricks also burned shells from the lakeshore to make lime for mortar. They used these materials to build their own homes and carried them under sail to help build the new colonial capital of New Orleans.
Some eighty years later, when the area was under Spanish control, Joseph Laurent followed the same idea. He built a trading post out of local materials on a bluff a little further up the bayou at place that later became known as Camp Salmen. He also sailed his products to New Orleans and brought back trade goods for the Native Americans and white settlers. His bricks sold especially well because two huge fires had burned down the old wooden French city and the Spanish decreed it would never happen again as all new construction would henceforth be of brick and mortar. The game was on for north shore brick makers.
About a hundred years after this Fritz Salmen bought the land and also mined local clay for bricks for the New Orleans market. The city and surrounding communities were growing by leaps and bounds in this, the Gilded Age, and Salmen became a wealthy man; the area's first mogul. His enterprise grew and diversified and with the help of the railroads he put Slidell on the map.
The clay is from very fine river sediment that accumulated in quiet swampy areas next to bayous like Liberty. Could it be that the clay used by Liberte', Laurent and Salmen was dug from our mystery hole? How much of the French Quarter that we see today came from this hole in the ground next to Bayou Liberty.
This is our newest raised boardwalk. It goes through an area that’s both a semi-wet pine flatwood and a gum swamp. And what the heck is a gum swamp? It’s a “near-swamp,” wet enough to be dominated by a moisture-loving tree like the Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) but not so wet as to be full of cypress. You can tell the Black gum by their flared trunks, wrinkly grey bark and pointed leaves. There are also Sweet Gum trees here (Liquidambar styraciflua). These are the ones that drop their spiky, round seedpods all over the place in fall and winter. Both type of gum trees are among the first to loose their leaves when summer is over.
This section of the park has standing water after heavy rains and acts as a holding basin for drainage into Goldfish Bayou, the park’s tributary to Bayou Liberty. This flooding helps reduce the number of small plants completing for space on the forest floor and keeps the ground wet enough for gum trees.
The moisture here gives these woods a unique ecological character. Common species are club mosses (Lycopodiopsida), a kind of grass called Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus)), Red Swamp Bay (Persea borbonia) and Mayhaw (Crataegus aestivales). Animals that like to live in these woods or pay an occasional visit include blue-tailed skink, armadillos, eastern grey squirrels, several snake species, deer and many kinds of birds.
Lady’s Hat Pin (Syngonanthus flavidulus)).
Have you ever noticed how a gnat cloud will hover in just one place and how they do this “conveniently” at human mouth or nostril level? Ever wonder just what the heck it is they think they’re doing in these large gatherings? Well, here are the answers.
A little Internet research and much observation reveals they are looking for love, of course. Like teenagers everywhere, the girls want to be where the boys are and the boys want to be with the girls. Also, like teenagers, they tend to congregate and display obnoxious behavior. Watch closely and certain boys will drop suddenly, and dangerously from the top of the cloud just to show off and attract the girl’s attention. They all tend to buzz around aimlessly, gossiping and chattering in their own teen lingo. Some are even self-absorbed with hand-held computer devices, oblivious to the world. This is aggravating to those of us who are trying to be more mature and responsible.
Some of this is the “safety-in-numbers” thing and some of it may have something to do with staying oriented to a certain landmark so they can all stay together but don’t expect such a flighty, irresponsible bunch to display too much sense. With all the hormonal excitement, they act just like a cloud of gnats.
Why are they obnoxious and do it in your face? Don’t they know this behavior could be dangerous and they could get inhaled? Peer pressure. The desire to show off, to be different. “Doing your own thing,” seems to be the buzzwords here. When was the last time you expected a gnat to be cautious and sober-minded, especially when they are in love?
Slidell remembers Fritz Salmen (1857(?) – 1934) with a high school, a street, his prominent old house and a certain former boy-scout camp. And of course, there is his industrial legacy. He essentially put Slidell on the map as it became a Salmen company town. Though the railroad men had naming rights, John Slidell was father-in-law to one of them, Salmen and his brothers were first to take full advantage of the new steel rails from the empty southeastern St. Tammany woods to the big city across the lake. They bought up vast tracts of virgin timberland and dug up good clay for bricks and used them as a foundation for an empire that included lumber, shipbuilding, farming, fired-clay products, banking, ranching, dry goods & groceries, real estate development, railroads and even a church. These industries employed, and fed the families of a great portion of Slidell’s population. Who was Fritz Salmen the man?
Fritz was a Swiss with a Germanic attention to detail, a high degree of inventiveness and a relentless desire to succeed through hard work. He lived during the “Gilded Age” of the late 1800s with its tremendous population growth, “laissez-faire” government regulations and great opportunities for clever, enterprising men to prosper. Some, like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt became known as “Robber Barons” by using predatory and monopolistic practices that helped give rise to the trade unions and their ornery cousins the anarchist. These contributed to the considerable labor troubles just up the road in another company town, Bogalusa. Though he too amassed a fortune and held close control of his empire, all indications are that Fritz Salmen was a kind and benevolent boss who was socially responsible for his time and well-liked in this town.
A glowing article in a 1920s trade publication explained how Salmen liked nothing better than staying in Slidell and minding his factories. He had a good rapport with his hired hands, having a “pretty intimate knowledge of their worries and problems. Every workman feels that he has a personal acquaintance with him and they speak of (him) as “the old man”…with affection. They know he is kindly, just and fair in his decisions and that loyalty to him will be rewarded.” This appreciation remains at the nature park named in his honor.
Camp Salmen’s greenery is like a jungle, an immense tangle of trees, bushes and vines in an astonishing variety of leaf. Its one of the visual pleasures of living in our semi-tropical environment. If you have ever traveled out west, where plant-life is scarce, you can appreciate how we have something growing on virtually every available square inch of ground.
Unfortunately, many of the plants that you see don’t belong here. They were never a part of the native ecology and are now known as invaders. Some were brought by man like Tung and Chinese Tallow trees. They were once thought to be commercially beneficial for their oil and were actually promoted by the government to land owners. It was thought Chinese Privet could be grown close together to make inexpensive livestock fencing. Some plants like Christmas Berry, Mimosa, Wisteria and Cherokee Rose were considered pretty and were planted near homes. Some just crept in or hitch-hiked here on their own. Unfortunately, they all got out of hand. Overly aggressive species beat out the natives for sunlight, soil and space. The obnoxious ones can be considered the gutter punks of the Plant Kingdom.
One of our goals at the camp is to bring the park closer to its natural state; the way it may have looked a couple of centuries ago, before people in ships and airplanes started switching around the world’s plant and animal communities. An invasive eradication program has been attempted to give native plants back their space. We have been successful against Chinese Tallow and Cherokee Rose, for instance, because these were easy to find. However, it’s a constant battle with seeds being brought into the park by wind, water and animals and there are many places for these plants to hide. Also, certain aspects of the natural order like fires and floods have been short-circuited and then there is the advent of suburbs. Completely returning the park to an earlier day is a pretty tall order and we’ll try as best we can but the genie is out of the bottle I’m afraid and, like it or not, the world has always been a constantly evolving place.
The dappled sunlight filtering through the trees on Camp Salmen’s Swampwalk shows why dwarf palmetto palms (Sabal minor) are the “radiant beauties” of the swamp. Their giant, green starburst-shaped leaves are scattered here and there in spiky clusters throughout our wetland woods.
The plant grows on slightly elevated ground in the swamp: low ridges deposited by flowing water, hummocks around trees and on top of old Indian campsites. Historically, both Native American and European travelers used the plant to identify higher, drier ground so they could find their way through the boggy landscape.
Choctaw and Cajuns found ways to use the tough, fibrous leaves of the palmetto in their everyday lives. They wove them with a bit of cane as a stiffener into baskets, trays and backpacks and even children’s dolls. They layered them on top of their huts and cabins to make a durable, weatherproof roof that was easily repaired or replaced. Hunters continue to use them today to conceal their blinds in marsh and woods. Parts of the plant were also known to have medicinal qualities.
Palmettos are slow growing evergreens found across the southeastern U.S. including many of Louisiana’s wet areas. I have seen them in their greatest concentrations carpeting the forest floor along miles of I-49 in the Red River bottomland. There is a small colony of a rare sub-variety in the LaBranche wetlands near the end of the Bonnett Carre Spillway that grows on eight-foot trunks. Most of those found at Camp Salmen are the standard variety that grows on one to three foot stems.
In the spring, they send up tall stalks topped with tiny white flowers. These turn into clusters of black berries at the end of the summer that are food for birds and mammals. We collect these and broadcast them under our Live Oaks. Look closely in the mulch for the little one and two-leaf starts that will some day grow to be big, beautiful green fans.
I’ve always liked Mockingbirds. They’re winsome little souls with a lot of personality and their song sweetens the springtime air. Their bold, striped wings easily identify them. They show these stripes with a weird little two-step motion when they do their mating dance.
The bird is noisy and feisty when bravely battling snakes, mammals and birds of prey that intrude in their territory. They will harangue them relentlessly until satisfied the interlopers have crept or flown from the area.
Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos)occur coast to coast in the southern half of North America and are so well liked in the U.S. South they have been named the official state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. They have inspired many a southern songwriter.
They are great mimics, sort of like Mynah birds, but only remember short snippets of other bird’s songs and even do sounds made by insects and barking dogs. They string these together into a long pattern they eventually repeat. I once observed one spend an hour perched atop a phone pole, endlessly singing his heart out, reeling off one riff after another in a long improvisational song as complex, ardent and inscrutable as a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo.
The other day I thought I heard a hawk keening above the trees but all I could see up there was a Mocking bird. It turns out they can do that too - mimic hawks. (He sounded like a pretty lightweight hawk). I had to laugh, this particular talent must come in pretty handy when they want to scare the Bejesus out of the other small animals in the neighborhood.
In late March the Lubber grasshopper, also known as the Devil’s Horse, makes its annual appearance at Camp Salmen. From the very beginning they are exact, tiny versions of their big, full-grown adult selves – little half-inch glossy black miniatures with six tiny, spindly legs and a tiny red racing stripe that makes them look quite “boss”. Some remain black and others develop yellow patterns.
At first you find them in clusters, presumably close to where they emerged together from the underworld, where their Mama had laid them. Even in this diminutive size they’re scary little things, with all those legs and their jerky, mechanical movements. They remind you of what a delirium tremens nightmare must look like.
At this earlier stage they seem to prefer open areas, like garden paths, so they can startle you when you suddenly find them scattering under foot. Since nothing much wants to eat them, I understand they taste terrible, they have no reason to hide. Gradually they spread out and spend summer days discretely nibbling away on the park’s prodigious plant life and fattening up.
By late summer they are huge, 2-3 inches long. When the braver children visiting the park try to pick them up the bug lets out a hiss of complaint. They also ooze a toxic “tobacco juice” from their mouth. The kids usually release them immediately. Raccoons and ‘possums that rashly attempt to eat them are known to upchuck as a result. This is one of the ways they maintain their numbers to the point there are still enough of them left to mate shamelessly in the bushes, in full view of park visitors. Mama backs her eggs into the ground and it is there where they spend the winter as larvae, getting ready to begin their annual cycle next spring.
Every evening I have to check the trashcans in the pavilion to make sure there is no food left in them for the raccoons to have a nighttime frolic. They are not very tidy when they do. For some unknown reason I’ve been finding three or four tree frogs hiding in and around these cans. I’ve admonished them, “This is not an honorable thing for a frog to do, hang around trashcans. Plus its dangerous, you can get accidentally squished. A nice lily pond would be a better place for you.” One evening one of the frogs took a ride with me on my buggy. I was loading up garbage bags to take to the dumpster and a frog hung on the bag. He moved over to the big blue barrel I carry for watering plants. Its nice and smooth like he is and he wasn’t inclined to get off. So we went for a ride. We went to the dumpster first and got rid of the bag then went around the corner to Mary's Grotto. We saw Mary, stopped to pick up a piece of litter on the ground, got on to the bike trail, stopped to remove a stick that had fallen on the trail then headed down the hill for the bridge over pretty Goldfish Bayou. As we approached the bridge I hollered over my shoulder, “This is a good spot, you ought to consider it.” I’ll be golly-darned if I didn’t catch him out of the corner of my eye taking a well-timed leap from the moving buggy, through the bridge railing into the creek bottom. He made a perfect landing in a beautiful setting. I thanked him for taking up my suggestion, for his initiatives and for his bravery.
One of the heartier, persistent and more obnoxious plants growing at Camp Salmen is the Green Briar. It comes in several varieties known collectively as Smilax. It is one tough customer; a climbing vine that starts with just a handful of pretty, bright glossy green leaves and steadily grows into a long, stiff, rangy trunk covered with sharp, evil, flesh tearing thorns. They grow high up into the trees and can take over a considerable chunk of forest canopy. Unlike most other vines that discretely cling close to their host tree, the Green Briar comes out of the ground a short distance away from the tree trunk and arcs gracefully though the air so it can ensnare larger creatures like humans who innocently try to move through what they thought was open woods.
It consolidates its hold on the ground (and improves its longevity) by growing an irregular, bulbous underground “potato” on its root. This makes it almost impossible to pull up and eradicate even the smallest ones – especially the ones growing in a favorite garden.
My reading indicates the Choctaw considered the flour made from these potatoes as a favorite food. I had to try this and prepared a root. It was as hard as wood and when I managed to saw the thing open its cut face spontaneously grew tiny hairs before my eyes, making it almost too creepy to touch. After some rough work with a cheese grater I blended the shavings with a bit of conventional flour and fried a small boulette in oil. It wasn’t half bad. Kind of nutty, like a Hazel nut, a little bitter, like an acorn
In the spring ithis plant's soft, growing tip looks particularly alien and malevolent. This is said to taste a lot like asparagus and nature nuts consider it desirable to eat but I think I’ll wait another year.
Fall is already underway and its time to think about trying some of Camp Salmen’s trails through our beautiful woods. We have three trail systems with about three and a half miles of footpaths, bike trails and boardwalks, each with its own character and story. Maps for these trails are available at our Pavilion.
- The BAYOU LIBERTY TRAIL (approx. ¼ mi. one-way) is right off our main parking lot. Go past the display signs straight to the park’s most popular feature, the SWAMPWALK BOARDWALK. It zig-zags through a riot of lush, ever changing plant life to an observation platform overlooking the quiet waters of the bayou. A plant identification guide is available in the pavilion. Back at the beginning of the boardwalk the OUTDOOR CLASSSROOM and NATURE GARDEN are to the left (north) and the famous SALMEN LODGE and trails beyond it are to the right (south). Lovely views of the bayou can be seen along the way.
- The BICYCLE TRAIL (approx. ½ mi. one-way) is a spur from our future link to the Tammany Trace. It’s a smooth, asphalt path that starts at the Huntwyck gate, follows the W-12 Canal, goes past Mary’s Grotto, crosses Goldfish Bayou and ends at the Pavilion. Along the way are several gravel footpaths on the right that lead to Parish Parkway.
- The “BACKBONE TRAIL” is the longest (approx. 1 mi. one-way) and begins across Parish Parkway from Mary’s Grotto. Stay to the left, and except for a couple of short dead-ends, it goes all the way to the other end of the park. Along the way are several loops and exits to the parkway on the right. The GUM SWAMP BOARDWALK is near the beginning. The PITCHER PLANT BOARDWALK is at the other end, near the entrance to the park. Different ecological zones can be seen in between: flatwoods bottom land, hardwood forest, old growth pine and oak forest and pine savannah. A quicker path back to the beginning of the trail follows the edge of the woods along the parkway.
Frogs love it wet. They want the world to be wet, all the time. (They themselves are wet.)
Next to the house at Camp Salmen is a low area full of trees, brush and brambles. It was apparently a clay pit, several acres in size, where material was mined for bricks way back when. It holds rain-water now and is prime frog habitat. At dusk on a warm, muggy evening, particularly if it rained that afternoon, the pit gives rise to a thundering chorus of happy frogs. Thousands of voices chirp, croak and sing in every pitch and cadence. They join together and are remarkably loud. If it happens to rain again the frogs get even happier, wetter and louder. “Bring it on!” they roar, “Get wet, dammit!”
If you step onto the back porch looking over the pit you would have to raise your voice if wanted to have a conversation. You wouldn’t have to worry about interrupting the frogs because they couldn’t hear you over the noise. Go inside in the air conditioning and close the steel door and the sound reverberates through the walls.
This carries on through night. By dawn most of the frogs have presumably found who or what ever it was they were looking for and only an ardent handful are hoarsely croaking. Finally, two or three, then one lone voice, then silence as the sun comes up and the frogs are satisfied.
They are lords of the air, predators who suddenly swoop down to terrorize mosquitoes, gnats, midges and other such small things. A dozen of them can be seen patrolling back and forth over the patch of lawn between the Camp Salmen pavilion and “woodpecker grove.” Its their hunting ground all summer long. They appear to cooperatively fly over roughly the same repeated pattern and altitude, interrupting their flight only with the aforementioned swoops.
They also possess a certain grace, floating gently about on twitchy, x-shaped wings. Sometimes they perch regally on a twig or, better yet, a car aerial and survey the landscape with their mechanical, 360 degree gaze.
They come in a variety of vivid colors: royal blue, red, yellow, gold, powder blue, pink, green and white with bold black stripes. They are like some sort of psychedelic hallucination to someone who has spent too much time outside on a long, hot muggy summer afternoon.
Then they do a weird thing at the end of their season. There are fewer of them by this time because they’ve spent the summer being someone else’s food - birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, car radiators and even fish canget them. After awhile they just don’t seem to care. They become docile and will actually buddy up to humans and make themselves available for close inspection. It’s as if they are telling us, “I’m done here. I’ve done my part. Eat me if you want but I prefer we just be friends.”
One evening I was rounding the last curve on the road to the house and stopped dead in my tracks at the beautiful sight in my headlights: four full-sized, well-proportioned, graceful, healthy looking does browsing on the lawn on my left. They crossed the road right in front of me and quickly disappeared into the woods to my right. I named them “The Ladies” because they had an air of elegance. I’ve since caught glimpses of them and others, alone and in groups, in various parts of the park. A few times a cute little fawn was following along, once one was in the company of a buck. Deer have probably become more common in our nature park because they’re getting used to our hospitality.
One possibility may be the result of a recently planted pea patch on the side of the road between Mary’s Grotto and the bike path to the Huntwyck gate. We got a “two-fer” out of this deal because it had been a barren stretch of clay-covered ground and now a cycle of plant life has been established. A new crop of oats, wheat, clover, barley and greens are on the way for winter grazing.
One afternoon I saw something that made this effort all worthwhile. A lone doe was grazing in the patch at the edge of the woods some distance from where I came to the road from the bike trail. I was determined to get a photograph and as I walked slowly toward the animal a carload of giggly high school girls also came down the road. I waved them down and advised them to look for the deer up ahead. The doe cooperated by staying still long enough for the girls to pull up along side and get a good look at her before she melted into the woods… another value-added attraction of your local parish nature park.
If you walk quietly down Camp Salmen's Swampwalk boardwalk you may be lucky enough to suddenly spot a large Blue-tailed Skink basking in the sun. A sharp observer who manages to take in this sight might think they resemble an exquisite Tiffany jewel piece - a beautiful bronze body, an elegant suit of yellow pinstripes and a vivid,eye-catching iridescent blue tail. Sometimes older males even sport a noble red head. They can disappear in the blink of an eye and might leave you wondering, “Did I just see what it was I thought I just saw?”
It turns out blue-tailed skinks are the most numerous lizard in North America; from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic to the edge of the Great Plains. Their official name is the American Five-lined Skink; scientific Latin name: Eumeces fasciatus. They can grow up to eight inches long. Their fancy pinstripes and tail fade as they age through their six-year lifespan. They like things moist in their environment, making them easier to find in and around our swamp, and they usually stay hidden from view, except in those moments when they can’t resist basking in the sun.
Females actually “mother” their eggs but the young’uns are on their own only a day or two after hatching. Afterward, any number of predators - snakes, crows, hawks, shrews, moles, opossums, skunks, raccoons and domestic catsmay have a go at them, but the skink has a unique defensive strategy: they simply detach their beautiful tails and leave them twitching on the ground as a distraction whist making a getaway. If they survive this encounter they get to grow a replacement tail.
Skinks are, in turn, someone else’s predator. They have a liking for spiders, millipedes, crickets, snails termites, grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, various larvae and even vertebrates small enough to swallow whole, like frogs, lizardsand baby mice.
I was walking the Bayou Liberty trail when I noticed a pecking sound in the woods next to me. It was one of those giant Pileated woodpeckers prospecting a tree just a few feet away. Startled, he took off over the bayou with his two running buddies, the three calling to each other.
I walked just a short distance further when I heard a great ruckus ahead. I moved to a clear view of a dramatic scene over the bayou. A five-foot Chicken snake hanging from a large live oak branch some twenty feet above the water had snagged one of the birds by its wing. The bird was screaming bloody murder and his companions, one of whom was probably his mate, were desperately attacking the snake and screaming as well. But the snake was unfazed. He and the bird dangled beneath the limb as he moved with great deliberation, carefully looping a couple of coils around his prey to insure the capture.
The bird quieted down a bit, probably contemplating his fate. The snake’s coils tightened. When the bird tried to squawk again it wasn’t quite as loud as before. I briefly considered trying to somehow help the poor creature but quickly realized that even Chicken snakes got to eat. It was a rule of the club these predators belong to. I didn’t wait for the gruesome “denouement” but I imagine that without proper utensils the snake eventually began his meal with the pointy end of the bird.
A Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) caught out in the open, all smiles.
Camp Salmen’s “glory-hog,” its most visible wild animal, is the Raccoon (Procyon lotor). It will strut around in broad daylight with little regard for humans, sprawl out asleep in a tree, graze around in the grass or ransack a trash-can. They’re also secretive, nocturnal creatures, like Ninjas; skulking around the pavilion at night, making sure any leftover food items are consumed.
I’m sure if you dig deeper into their little psyches you’ll find a “tragi-comic” character, both carefree and grim from the weight life. They’re comedic with their antics, agile hands, cantankerousness and silly mask yet, their lives can be tragic because they are somebody’s’ food. Coyotes love ‘em, but coons can put up a fight and can run up a tree lickety-split. Their lifestyle forces them to spend most of their time in the harsh outdoors and they must get by without benefit of prepared foods. They’ve also been known to have run-ins with the automobile, though that hasn’t been a problem in the park.
They also do “cute.” I watched a family of raccoons amble out of the woods, a mama and four young’uns about half her size. The little fur balls were awkward as they tried to stay together, close on her heels. When mama stopped to check some little thing, the little train wrecked as they stumbled into one another.
They were learning from the master, who, no doubt, had the better nose for finding something to eat. When they reached an open lawn Mama bounded ahead and the little buggers scrambled to keep up, lest they all get caught. They disappeared back into the brush and continued making the rounds at old Camp Salmen.
What is the most ferocious beast at Camp Salmen? Well, we don't have any panthers or black bears in the woods or sharks in the bayou. We do have a few furtive, forlorn coyotes, some “fraidy-cat” snakes and one lonely alligator that only frightens fish. I'd have to say that, pound for pound, it would have to be the red fire ant (Solenopsis invicta)
Red ants are mechanical little beasts, each with a strict function in the society of their colony. The worker is the most numerous. They normally toil way in the dark tunnels of the mound, lurking just under its calm exterior but with any kind of disturbance they instantly turn into little badass U.S. Marines. The mound suddenly erupts as hundreds of red defenders, each in attack mode, bust out into the daylight; literally opening up the mound and spilling out in every direction to relentlessly search for the offender, take them on and deliver a painful bite.
Be careful about fooling around with these mounds. Any ants that get on your clothes unobserved will crawl around until they find an unprotected, unsuspecting part of your anatomy and then sink in their mandibles like no tomorrow; like the ant who recently grabbed my leather boot and wouldn’t let go until only his head was left when I tried to brush him off.
We try to suppress the activity of these South American invaders but unfortunately, they seem to favor our green lawns, which is also where our park guests like to go. So, try to remember the two things you learn to do automatically when outside in Louisiana: seek shade and watch that you’re not standing on an ant mound.
By far the grandest view in the park is on the bluff overlooking a wide bend in Bayou Liberty. Its next to the old trading post, an ancient building dating from the Spanish era and one of the oldest in St. Tammany Parish.
You can see a good ways up and down the bayou and watching the water's surface can be mesmerizing. Its like a visual symphony. Things drift slowly by like the clouds in the sky - clusters of hundreds of glittering water bugs of various types, creeping bands of “cat's paws” betraying where the wind rustles the water and murky swirls of floating pollen (or whatever the fallout du jour is from the local vegetation). Overlaying it all is the reflection of trees, sky and glittering sun on the shimmering water.
Additionally, the bayou teems with life in a kaleidoscope of activity. Its like submarine warfare out there. Schools of small fish leave gentle ripples as they move about. There is a random pop, pop, pop of violent attacks by gar and bass, each leaving widening bull eyes in the water. Unseen fish in pursuit of prey zip like meteors. Terrorized ‘Rain minnows,” the nervous Nellie's of the bayou, spook and suddenly flip out of the water in unison at the slightest danger. Its an effect like tossing in a handful of silver dimes in the water. Occasionally a tail breaks the surface when a fish makes an especially acrobatic move on a target. Sometimes a whole fish, usually a shad, will heave himself clear and make a flash-pose in the air. A turtle's head emerges and idly takes in the scene before resuming his hunt. Herons and egrets stalk along the banks. It all happens here and there on the bayou with the randomness of heat lightning.
Backlit Spanish moss frames the bayou in the late afternoon.
The rain swollen bayou slips away downstream.
I was making my rounds in the park, near where the swimming pool once was, when I heard a vague “wall of noise” off to the north. What WAS it? The wind? It was hard to tell because someone in that direction was also making noise with a gas powered weed eater.
I went a few steps further and suddenly saw it right in front of me - a twenty foot high, fiercely spinning tornado of yellow hornets! Holy-moly! Some made random orbits like angry electrons. Some flung themselves out of the whirling cloud to search for interlopers like me. Hornets are very nasty creatures. Blunder into something like this and you could die, or at least have your afternoon plans severely altered. Or was it bees? They were yellow. Fortunately, I was too far away to tell for sure.
I cautiously edged around for a better view. If it was hornets they’d probably be associated with a hole in the ground. Find the hole and take care of the hornets later, if you know what I mean, but since I detected no motion toward a hole it must have been the relatively predictable (and tamer) honeybee.
After awhile they confirmed this. They did the bee thing by massing from the spinning cloud to a tree branch. I moved closer and saw thousands of bees crawling all over each other in a big wad. My boss later explained the queen bee was “absconding,” that is, looking for a new nest. The hive was cooling its heels on the branch while she did her search. I warned the nearby maintenance crew and by late afternoon the mass of bees was gone. Only a few lost individuals hovered around the empty branch.
All’s well that ends well. Another day in paradise without suffering either death or debilitation is fine with me.
At two o’clock one morning I was awakened by the strangest sound coming through my bedroom window. To my befogged mind it was the laughter and shouts of children, swirling and echoing in the pavilion a hundred yards away; much like the noise the scouts made a couple of weeks before. But as my mind sharpened I had to ask myself, what were kids doing in the pavilion at this hour and on a Monday?
I tried to listen more closely but it was only a ghostly babble, hard to focus on, for it had no vowels or consonants. It was a strange, surreal and chilling sound, like from the movie “Blair Witch Project” and it raised the hair on the back of my neck. I wondered, was it owls? They make bizarre, guttural, gurgling noises at night and trade hoots back and fourth with the other owls. Was it ghosts at the old Indian trading post down on the bayou? That seemed a bit far-fetched. I eventually got back to sleep.
The next day my boss assured me it was Coyotes (Canis latrans). Apparently, sometimes they get their pack together at night and raise a fuss. Maybe they argue over hierarchies or setting priorities or strategizing on the neighborhood’s pet food bowls or where one can find a tasty rabbit. I have seen just one of these scruffy beasts by the light of day in the past two years.
Another night I heard a rustling in the dark outside my window. There was a snarl, a scuffle, then a helpless squeal from some poor creature, snagged by what was probably a roving coyote. Lately they’ve been on a campaign to covert our rabbit population into the furry scat they deposit on our roads and bike paths. I haven’t made up my mind if I should let these rangy, nocturnal creatures remind me more of the “Loup Garou” or the hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote of Warner Brothers fame.
If enough wind blows across Lake Pontchartrain from the southeast, water levels rise in Bayou Liberty. Although Camp Salmen is a good ten miles inland, our swamp can get a foot or more of clear water in it. Normally, the small pond next to the Swampwalk boardwalk is barely joined to the bayou, but now it and the surrounding swamp are a new water-world where fish from the bayou can freely come and go to hunt.
This is a fairly common circumstance and usually no problem, unless the water stays up too long then suddenly drops, like when the wind shifts to the north. This commences a three-stage tragedy.
Many of the fish are spread out in the swamp and can’t retreat back to the dropping bayou fast enough. The water has been steeping in the swamp for days and is now a brown organic tea that gathers in the pond. The bacteria love it and multiply insanely. When their sweet, short lives are over, their decomposition robs all the oxygen from the water, thus asphyxiating the fish. A hundred of them can litter the edge of the tiny, thousand square foot pond. Our normally tranquil boardwalk acquires a certain odor along this part.
This quirky hydrologic feature on the banks of the bayou has probably killed thousands and thousands of fish in the untold years since the bayou’s currents formed it. If the fish are hungry enough and the wind is right and the timing is right then its a sucker’s bet for the fish.
By far the oldest thing at Camp Salmen, besides Bayou Liberty and the land itself, is the old trading post. It’s a classic Acadian style building, originally with cooling porches front and back and tall windows for ventilation and was built in the first decades of the Nineteenth Century.
The bayou in front of this structure got its name from a renegade Frenchman named La Liberte’ who left New Orleans shortly after it was founded and became one of the first Europeans to settle on the north shore. He made a living producing building materials from local natural resources and sailing them to the new city.
Joseph Laurent built his trading post about eighty years later to provision local Choctaw and settlers and sail their produce to market in the city. Like La Liberte’, he also produced building products from the land.
The site he chose was perfect: the bluff the building sits on was high enough to escape flooding, the bayou wide enough for Laurent to turn his schooner around and there were plenty of raw materials in the nearby woods. He also operated a ferry. The building has since become one of St. Tammany Parish’s oldest structures.
The interior of the main room.
Since the original French-built wooden city of New Orleans was devastated by two fires in the late 1700s, Louisiana’s new Spanish overlords decreed all new construction must be of brick and mortar to prevent another such disaster. This gave Laurent and others a strong market for north shore products - sand and gravel, lime for mortar (which was made by burning clam shells found on lake beaches), bricks from clay and the many things that could be made from pine trees: tar and pitch from the tree’s resin (for making canvas and rope waterproof and rot resistant), barrel staves, lumber, shingles, charcoal, etc. These materials helped build the French Quarter we know today as well as Laurent’s trading post. The wooded low area you can see next door is probably where the clay was mined for the bricks in its walls.
Fritz Salmen bought the old building around 1900 when it was nearly a century old and still in use as a residence, store and ferry office. After logging the surrounding land he donated it all to the Boy Scouts in the 1920s. They named the building “Salmen Lodge” in his honor and used it as a residence for the Camp Manager.
St. Tammany Parish Government now owns the property and has placed it on the National Register of Historic Places and will restore it to the way it was in the early 1800s.
The back porch is thought to have been enclosed shortly before the Civil War.
I can’t imagine a more “Jekyll and Hyde” plant than the Cherokee Rose (Rosa laevigata). It was the height of spring when I started working at Camp Salmen and thousands of gorgeous, pure white rose blossoms dotted the foliage all around, making the park look like Paradise. All I could think was “how beautiful,” little did I know.
During the course of the year I learned that the plant is an invasive species (another product of China) and has few limits on taking over huge sections of woods. Its ambition seemed maniacal for a plant. Whole trees are enveloped in the stuff; turned into dead trellises by its smothering coverage. Long ropes of the vine arced through the air, sprawling in every direction, branching every few feet to build a web over the woods. Hideous “nests” of the thorny rose occurred here and there, waiting to snag the unsuspecting.</p>
Where the rose gets truly satanic is when you go “man to plant” with it. It is covered with vicious fishhook shaped thorns pointed inward so if anything larger than a mouse blunders into the plant it won’t let go without causing grievous harm. It would make a good natural substitute for concertina wire. Just a brushing encounter with it can leave you cut up. You can imagine the end game of an extreme encounter with it would be entrapment, slow, painful death and decay at its the roots.
<p>Therefore, extreme caution and a careful strategy are necessary. What seems to work is a liberal application of a woody herbicide. About six months later you can hack the brittle, rotting branches to the ground. Go slowly with a pair of long handled clippers and wear protective gloves and clothing for the thorns can still cut. Its not over. Care has to be taken to prevent this Hydra from rearing back up. Chances are it has a well-established root system and will start over again. This may mean seeking out the new starts and digging this alien monster up by its roots.</p>
<p>Admire the springtime beauty of this rose at your hazard – as no doubt, thousands of home and property owners have done in the past - and know the consequences.</p>
The August weather is sweltering, but the actual peak of the summer sun was way back in June. Cool fronts are already making their way into the lower 48. Perhaps the shortening days are some sort of a signal to one of the most noticeable birds at Camp Salmen that it is time to begin to mosey west to Texas wintering grounds. They are already getting scarcer and scarcer in the woods.
The Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) has vivid, contrasting black and white bars on their backside, a white underside and a beautiful bright red head and neck. These colors command attention that make them instantly recognizable, especially when they spread their wings to land. They have a distinctive dive and swoop as they lope from one tree trunk to another in the woods, then gracefully flare to make a solid, upright landing like a magnet on a refrigerator.
The grove of trees between the Pavilion and the road are a favorite place for them to hang out all summer and practice their omnivorism - eating both plants and animals. They adroitly capture insects on the ground and in the air and forage for nuts, seeds, fruits, berries and occasionally, other bird's eggs.
They also mine insects from Camp Salmen's plentiful dead trees left from Hurricane Katrina. They also make nests in hollows in this rotting wood. Sometimes you'll hear a tell-tale "knock, knock, knock" of their pecking somewhere up in the leaves. They are hard to spot because they purposely hop to the other side of the tree to avoid being seen. Perhaps they are trying to keep a favorite spot a secret for themselves.
(Ben Taylor is the Caretaker at Camp Salmen Nature Park and will be writing a monthly column to talk about some of the features that the park offers, which is open to the public. This article was published in the Slidell Independent on August 12, 2012)