Jun 2, 2010 | ARCHIVE: STORIES

In the spring and early summer of 1999, Sally and Vaughan Mitchell made the round trip from their homeport of Aransas Pass, Texas, to Destin, Florida, and back on Kate, their 42′ LRC. This is the third of four installment in the series of this account of their cruise.

In 2002 Cindy and Mike Neumann purchased “Kate” from the Vaughans and she is now cruising the east coast as “Double Adventure”.

Lake Pontchartrain

Summer announced itself the last week of May with a couple of 90 degree days. Not the oppressive heat of August, but notice enough that those deliciously cool days of spring were history and a reminder that, while we may have a teenage attitude, our bodies are approaching John Graves’ “O.F.” status, vulnerable to long hot afternoons.

Thunderstorms and reports of several waterspouts kept us at Pass Christian for four days. Take note that the small craft harbor there, only 12 miles from its counterpart at Gulfport, is managed with a totally different attitude. I don’t mean the folks are unfriendly — they just don’t seem to care whether you show up or not. Or ever come back. Both are municipally operated, but there’s no D. J. at P. C. No personnel are on duty during the lunch hour, the marina office closes at 1530, and no one works on weekends or holidays. Nevertheless, Pass Christian is such an appealing town it should not be missed if cruising this area. And you might have the absolute best sandwich of your life at Harbor View Cafe — what anywhere else would be called a Philly Steak Sandwich, but which the proprietor had to rename the Longbeach Steak Sandwich before it would sell. (A lot of Southerners still have a certain attitude about anything north of, well, where they happen to be at the moment, I suppose.)

One final note about the now legendary D. J. Sally delighted him with the gift of her most precious CD, The Pearl Fisher’s Duet, sung by Placido Domingo and Thomas Hampson. The question of whether it’s better to give or receive is difficult when the pastries were so scrumptious.

Underway, calm seas made the passage to Slidell absolutely delightful, in contrast to our eastward cruise through the same area. The Mississippi Sound dolphins, understanding we were leaving them, put on a farewell show that topped them all. As we reached Lake Pontchartrain we passed one of the interesting things only boaters get to see: the Rigolets Light Station, a nifty old wooden lighthouse with an ancient air about it.

An oval roughly 24 miles by 32 miles, more or less twice as large as Galveston Bay, Lake Pontchartrain offers so much diversity one could spend months sussing out all aspects. New Orleans dominates the south shore, squeezed between the Lake and the parallel course of the Mississippi River. East and west are largely undeveloped or contiguous to other waterways or smaller bodies of water, and the north shore is home to many small communities, some old with their own history, now mostly spillover from New Orleans. Many bayous and rivers empty along the north shore, several of which we would like to explore.

After a couple of nights at its northeastern corner in the modern, well maintained but slightly sterile marina near Slidell, we moved west about 20 miles and wiggled up the narrow Bayou Castine at dead slow speed to Pietro Marina in Mandeville. After passing several modest but very appealing houses along water’s edge, flower color ablaze, we arrived at the marina on our port side. Two entrances off of the bayou lead to slips for permanent tenants, with the quay between providing a bulkhead for transient boaters where we tied up. To starboard was pure swamp for a couple of hundred yards before the land rose and a forest of pine trees formed a solid backdrop to enclose this private space and make it ours. After becoming at least somewhat accustomed to the beauty of the place, we were struck by its silence. The denseness of the plant material created an anechoic environment against which the sounds of birds and other critters, some of which surely came from the sound track of an old Tarzan movie, were clear and pure. It was a remarkable experience and I think we little realize how much background noise we have in our daily lives.

Seven miles by crow, but twenty-one miles by boat, we docked on the West bank of the Tchefuncta River in beautiful downtown Madisonville. Among the dozen or so spaces to tie up we found the one place with the 240 volt electrical connection we’d learned of from the crew of Loreli, a 53′ Hatteras motoryacht, at Dauphin Island, semi-concealed behind a large oak tree. Imagine parking a 42 ft. boat in the shade of a tree! So much information, “local knowledge” as it’s called, is exchanged between cruising boaters that we no longer consider that learning of this was just a lucky break. It was luck, however, that we had on board the oddball adapter that enabled us to plug into the nonstandard outlet. We anted up $10 at City Hall for the “requested” $5 per night “donation”, and for two days enjoyed the town’s active, vacationlike atmosphere. A grassy parkway separated the quay from the town’s river front street which is lined with choice examples of early twentieth century homes, two or three of which have been converted to good restaurants. Neat place.

Moving upstream we enjoyed the most scenic cruise of the entire voyage. The Tchefuncta River, which was once an important commercial waterway, is several hundred yards wide and quite deep. It meanders sharply, its swampy edges lined with moss-draped cypress trees backed up by taller pines on the higher ground beyond. Occasional magnolias with their huge white blossoms punctuated the shadowy shore. A solitary white egret perched on a cypress knee caught a beam of early morning sun and glowed beaconlike against the dark recesses, its reflection in sharp focus on still water. A photographer would have endless opportunities here. It’s difficult to describe the scenery without being repetitive or effusive. I expect I’ve been both, but when the quality of the cruise is kicked up from a “9.5” to a perfect “10” I get mushy.

We continued upstream, feeling privileged to be in such a beautiful place. Then we reached the dual Interstate 12 highway bridges, almost 10 miles north of the Lake, and were jerked back into the real world by the noise and busyness. Quickly retreating, a bend in the river returned us to the serenity of our world. A few bends later we stopped at Marina Beau Chene for a five night stay that we wished could last five weeks. Our friend from Gulfport came by to see if we needed anything — we know now that he is an internist — and we had a nice visit. The ambience of this region must impose itself on its people. No-wake zones are scrupulously observed. Courtesy and thoughtfulness are a way of life.

A rental car gave us access to land. Away from the water we were surprised at the enormous quantity of new housing development. The trees, tall tall pines, a variety of hardwoods and the lushness of the landscape, combined with nicely designed homes to create lovely residential areas. Even so, we preferred the original sections of town, now enjoying a renaissance, especially the interesting old homes along the Lake shore.

It took three different grocery stores and a Super Wal Mart to reprovision the boat for the next leg of our trip. The next day we crossed the Lake for two nights in New Orleans before our next encounter with the Industrial Canal and the mighty Mississippi.

Transiting the Industrial Canal, the five and a half mile no-wake zone trek from the Lake to the Mississippi River, is never a boater’s delight. It is crossed by eight bridges, four of which must be open for us to clear, all of which may have maintenance work in progress for us to cope with. And going through the locks is slow business. We arose at 0500 for an early start because one of the low bridges was scheduled to close from 0800 until noon. We thought we were doing well when we got into the canal after only a thirty minute wait at the first low bridge, and then zipped past the L & N railroad bridge with 45 minutes to spare. But the fun began at the third low bridge, Florida Avenue, when our radio request for an opening was rejected with the straightforward response from the taciturn bridgemaster, “negative”. Persisting, we learned “it’s broke”. Hoping for hope, I inquired when it might be “fixed”, and was left with “don’t know, its broke” as the key to our fate. This explained why a large shrimp trawler was tied up to a nearby barge moored on the side of the Canal, so we followed suit and docked behind him and shut down our engines, wondering when the stormy looking skies would let loose to further dampen our soggy sprits. Scarcely fifteen minutes later, a guy dressed in shorts and a T-shirt arrived, alighting from his pickup carrying a tool box no larger than a full size lunch pail, and in about two minutes the jillion ton bridge started to open. Too startled to dwell on the incongruity, we scrambled to get underway behind the shrimper and followed him to the locks. After tediously holding position in the forebay for and hour and a half, we processed behind two tows, a light boat, and three shrimpers into Industrial Locks. We’ve heard it gets much worse at times. The sense of relief when exiting the lock is brief — THE RIVER is quickly reached.

The trip upstream was slow because of the current, and the river was cluttered with crud from recent rains. Arriving at Harvey Locks, we entered after a forty-five minute wait behind the same two tows, just as the rain started, and by the time we exited my favorite deckhand looked like the proverbial drowned rat.

It took almost seven hours, compared with two hours eastbound, to cover the 11.73 miles (GPS’s know these things). Would we do it again? You bet. Think of it as standing in line. Consider how long you would stand in line for one good show and multiply that by almost two months of great cruising east of the Mississippi. And it was a terrific show.