Small, compact, lightweight pontoon boats have proven to be the ideal shallow draft exploratory craft. They are comfortable, safe and convenient and these vessels, by their very size, restrict their passenger loads to a manageable range. This, in turn, enhances both desirable class size and the potential for one-on-one education.
Debbie Gabehart, a real estate and restaurant executive from St. Martinville, La., owns and operates, primarily for pleasure, a 16-foot Sun Tracker Bass Buggy pontoon boat. It is powered by a 40-horesepower Evinrude outboard and draws only several inches of water.
When called upon, however, she often volunteers her toon for use as a floating classroom because she is most willing to share her love and knowledge of local wildlife and waterways. As a restaurant owner and chef in her own right, a side benefit to her trips is that she often brings aboard a picnic lunch that includes authentic Cajun recipes.
Lake Martin in St. Martin Parish in southwest Louisiana is one of the finest venues in the United States to study and learn about America's natural world diversity. People come to visit the 2,900-acre lake from all across this country and from the world over and are seldom disappointed.
An Impressive Collection
Owned and managed for the most part by the Nature Conservancy, the lake is home to a collection of animals-birds, fish, reptiles and mammals that are seldom seen existing all together elsewhere. It is an excellent micro-location to study and learn about Louisiana wildlife. To help enhance this, the Conservancy is establishing a million-dollar visitors and educational center and plans are in place to have this Cajun-style structure blend in with the natural environment.
During the spring nesting season, Lake Martin is home to thousands of pairs of colorful wading birds and is an important habitat for migratory birds. Throughout the year there are more than 200 species of resident, migratory and wintering birds; 1,200-1,800 alligators; and wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, frogs, snakes, turtles, squirrels, beavers, nutria and otters.
Although there are a limited number of commercial tour boat operations available at the lake, doing so in your own small pontoon boat enables a more thorough visit. The restricted bird nesting and rookery areas are well-marked and guide maps are available.
Lake Martin is the type of setting that many people imagine when they think of Louisiana. It is a broad shallow lake full of Cypress and Tupelo stands, which teams up with aquatic life, including many species of amphibians and reptiles. The rookery at the lake rivals any on this continent. Lake Martin is located just across the St. Martin Parish line from Lafayette.
To reach it, drive southeast from Lafayette on Highway 94, the "Breaux Bridge Highway" (by the way, the "eaux" in "breaux" is pronounced as the English letter "O"). Just outside of Lafayette, Highway 94 drops noticeably into the Mississippi River floodplain. Right near the bottom of the hill, there is a right hand turn. This is Highway 353. Take it, and go about five miles until you see a sign for "Lake Martin Rookery Road" on the left. This road makes a half-circle around one end of the lake, and continues as a walking trail around the other half. After turning off the highway, you will see a barricade to your left as you pass. This is where the walking trail and the driving road part ways.
This end of the lake is a Cypress and Buttonbush thicket where tens of thousands of waders including Little Blue Herons, Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, White Ibis (extremely numerous), Roseate Spoonbills (a recent addition to the rookery), and Night-Herons nest in the summer. This is also a good area in the summer for Barred and Great Horned Owls, Pileated, Hairy, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Parula, Prothonotary and Yellow-throated Warblers. In winter this stretch is great for Rusty Blackbirds.
The walking trail at this end of the lake offers unhurried looks at the rookery. However, watch out for alligator nests, which are basically big mounds of dirt, leaves, etc. The mothers guard these intently, and they will leave the water to ward you off.
Fall migration along this stretch usually yields huge flocks of buntings, and a variety of other songbirds as well. Driving on the road, the rookery is also visible, but you of course have to deal with occasional traffic. There is a small coulee running along the road, which is good for waders, Rusty Blackbirds in winter, and Rough-winged Swallows on the lines above in fall. Farther down the road, the area around the boat landing offers an unobstructed view into the center of the lake, and a great place to view the sunset.
The Other End
If you prefer to drive to the far end of the walking trail (as walking all the way there from the end near the entrance means walking a few miles), go beyond the landing to where the road ends. Walk beyond the barricade, and you will find yourself in an area where both Indigo and Painted Buntings nest, and good views of Anhingas can be had. During fall migration, this stretch can be outstanding for warblers, especially in the ragweed thickets (it's worth sneezing for).
In a recent trip to Lake Martin, Gabehart was able to use her pontoon boat for more than recreation. She transported several members of her family to the lake for an eco-tour. This was the nesting and birthing time of the year for many of the resident alligators. And, sure enough, there they were. The nests, however, were so close to the roadway and so far from deeper lake water, that the pontoon boat was loaded onto the trailer, which was then towed to a fenced off nesting site. There the small pontoon served as an elevated viewing platform and it worked out well for all. The people were above the gator's line of sight and therefore she was not hostile and hissing. At the same time, the children and their teacher were also out of the gator's line of sight and above the top of the fence line. This gave them an excellent overhead view and permitted the alligator to move about freely, much to the delight of the children!