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Silver Threads: An annual iris pilgrimage to Jean Lafitte Park

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

“It’s the 11 o’clock alligator,” I called to my Chicago friend as we stood on opposite sides of Bayou Coquille on a sunny spring day.

The long reptile just ignored us as he (or she?) glided past to the waters under the high wooden bridge across the bayou and then disappeared.

“Is it real?” asked my laughing friend. “Or on a track — like at Disney World?”

The last time I had seen an alligator there, things were up close and a little more personal than I liked. I rounded a curve in the boardwalk alongside the bayou and  between me and the water  stood a gator the size of a big dog, perched on legs I’d never have dreamed could be so long.

I motioned to my grandson to STOP and BE QUIET, and we held our breaths as the creature turned, hunkered down, and slid over the mud into the stream.

But alligator-watching isn’t the reason I’ve gone to Bayou Coquille so often over the years. The irises that bloom there so beautifully in April have been the attraction. For several years after Hurricane Katrina, the show wasn’t as splendid, but things slowly got back to normal. I last went to Coquille about three years ago and plan to be there once again this weekend. That’s when the staff at the ranger station suggested showing up.

Irises are returning to Jean Lafitte Barataria Reserve. (Photo: nps.gov)

Irises are returning to Jean Lafitte Barataria Reserve. (Photo: nps.gov)

From Wikipedia: Bayou Coquille is on the grounds of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, which protects significant examples of natural and cultural resources of Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta region. The park, named after the pirate Jean Lafitte, consists of six physically separate sites and a park headquarters:

  • Acadiana. Three sites interpret the Cajun culture of the Lafayette area, which developed after Acadians were resettled in the region following their expulsion from Canada (1755–1764) by the British and the transfer of French Louisiana to Spain in the aftermath of the French and Indian War.
  • The Barataria Preserve, at 6588 Barataria Boulevard in Marrero, has trails and canoe tours through bottomland hardwood forests, swamps, and marsh.
  • Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery was the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The national cemetery holds the remains of veterans of many wars fought by Americans. A visitor center offers exhibits and information near the battleground monument (an obelisk).
  • New Orleans Unit. The park operates a French Quarter Visitor Center on Decatur Street. It interprets more generally the history of New Orleans.

But back to the irises. To get to them, Google Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Click on Barataria Unit and you’ll get directions. If you don’t like taking directions, get on the West Bank expressway, exit at Barataria Boulevard, aiming left toward Lafitte. Drive along till you see the Bayou Coquille sign on the roadside or stop at the visitor center before or after you get there, I can’t remember which.

Seniors like me may want to use the facilities there before they go on the bayou boardwalk, so bear in mind that  the center is only open Wednesday-Sunday from 9:30 to 4:30. The round trip past the irises is about two miles, but I was never good at distances, so perhaps I exaggerate.

Additional info: The park service warns, “Never approach, harass, or feed alligators. Remember that they are wild animals and can move very quickly.”

If you go on Saturday and see an 80-year-old woman with white hair, wearing jeans, a white shirt, and sunglasses and waddling along — it’s probably me. And I don’t move quickly.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]