You might not even know it, but Baton Rouge is in the middle of a giant National Park.
The Atchafalaya National Heritage Area is an immense area covering fourteen parishes, and it celebrates the water heritage as well as the culture and history of the people who have historically lived their lives on the backwaters and bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin. There’s no better way to take advantage of this giant park than to get out on the water and experience it the way the National Park Service imagined we would.
On the other side of the Atchafalaya Basin, after you cross that long bridge on I-10, is the little town of Henderson. Even though the Henderson levee divides the town’s residents from the major swamp, the town is still crisscrossed by bayous and canals. This town holds the memories of the old Louisiana bayou culture, and is a great place to start your adventure on the water.
You’ll get off the first Interstate exit on dry land, turn east on Highway 352 until it dead-ends at the levee and turn left to go north. As the pavement ends and the dirt road starts kicking up dust behind you, you know you’re getting close. Finally, the trail crosses over the levee to the dirt parking lot, and the only thing left to do is unload the kayaks.
My friends and I recently set out to explore the Bayou Fuselier area, and we spent a fun few hours on the water. One of the reasons why Bayou Fuselier is a great place to explore is that there is a natural loop, and you can paddle in a big circle while barely crossing your own path at all. There is a man-made cut, or a long and straight canal dug by a long-forgotten oil company decades ago, that leads from the levee parking lot into Bayou Fuselier on the west side of the loop. The cut is a great place to start your paddle, as the smooth water and tree-lined banks provide a few minutes of getting used to being on the kayak.
Once the cut brings you to Bayou Fuselier, the scene changes drastically as the views open up. Turning south, you hit a wide stretch of water, with cypress trees lining the banks. Bayou Fuselier connects you to Little Fordoche Bayou, which in turn links up with Bayou Raccacious, which brings you back to the cut.
The full loop adds up to an eight-mile paddle, which shouldn’t take more than a few hours. However, if you’re worried the trip might be a little too long you can catch up with the cut midway through the paddle where it crosses Little Fordoche and make it back to the parking lot in only half the overall distance.
As with all bayous, these waters have an ever-so-slight current in them (of course, one of the many definitions of “bayou” is a stream that is moving extremely slowly). A unique thing about paddling a loop such as this is that you will in turn be paddling with the current while heading south and against the current while heading north. The current is so faint, however, that there’s no practical concern about how it impacts paddling.
The entire route is filled with wildlife sightings, and part of the fun is trying to spy all the animals. Whether you’re looking in the sky, the water, or along the banks, there’s pretty much always someone to spot. Keep an eye out for kingfishers, egrets, snakes, and alligators as you’re paddling, among many others.
Though this is an easy beginners paddle and is accessible for pretty much everyone, it would still be a good idea to bring a GPS to keep track of your location. Despite being a basic loop, it still is possible to miss a turn. Luckily, though the paddle is far enough from the I-10 bridge that you’ll never see or hear it, it’s close enough that the entire route has cell phone reception; just bringing your GoogleMaps along with you is enough to ensure that you won’t get lost!