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Pocket Refuge

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

AS WILDLIFE REFUGES GO, IT’S SMALLER THAN MOST. HOWEVER, size isn’t its major enticement.
That lies in the realms of serenity and wildlife populations. For the RV traveler seeking a
relaxing respite while traversing Interstate 10, a short stop at Breaux Bridge, Louisiana’s
Lake Martin is just what the doctor ordered. The 800-acre lake is small enough to walk
around the permitted area, while observing and photographing wildlife from its shorelines.
Proving once again that great things really do come in small packages, tiny Lake Martin is
an ideal spot to visit. The lake is only about two miles long, a half-mile wide and, for
the most part, quite shallow. In fact, it is more swamp than lake. But what a swamp! Lake
Martin is a microcosm of a nature preserve. The lake is home to one of the largest
waterbird colonies in the United States. Its roseate spoonbill opulation has grown from
almost zero five years ago to an estimated 50 pairs. More than 140 various species of
birds, either transient or resident, have been identified here. The alligator population
includes specimens up to 14 feet long and weighing more than 1,400 pounds. Naturalists,
wildlife photographers and bird-watchers have come from across the United States and
foreign countries to study the area. Much of the inaccessible backwater area is owned and
managed by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy as the Cypress Island Nature Preserve. Visitors
are cautioned to observe posted signs barring entry to the rookery; feeding or harassing
alligators and swimming in the lake are likewise prohibited. Recreational fishing and
waterfowl hunting are permitted in season, attracting sportsmen in increasing numbers. For
the very adventurous, Lake Martin has a private houseboat for rent, which means visitors
can stay overnight in a real Louisiana swamp. The 32×16-foot custom-built aluminum vessel
sleeps six and has all the amenities of shore-bound motorhomes. All swamps have a dual
ecosystem. Day is totally different from night. The birds, mammals and reptiles of the
daylight hours are replaced at sunset by their nocturnal counterparts. The sights and
sounds are intensified fourfold as the sun goes down and the moon rises. The mystique of
the creatures of the night is enhanced by the impenetrable darkness that settles over the
land under the thick canopy of trees and Spanish moss. The baleful hoot of an owl runs a
chill up and down your spine like no other critter. The deep guttural grunts of dozens of
big bull alligators seeking mates must be heard at least once in a lifetime. If you sweep
the surface of the lake with a high-intensity, million-candlepower spotlight, it will come
alive with the red-orange glow reflected from dozens of pairs of eyes as they await the
females’ answers. After spending some time at Lake Martin, both in our motorhome and on the
houseboat, it is fair to report that the two best times to be there are sunrise and sunset.
Thousands of birds leave their rookeries at dawn for daily feeding activities and return to
them at dusk. The brilliant rising and setting sun only enhances the scene. The
not-so-silent sounds of a Lake Martin night can prove fascinating. It gets dark quickly,
and all the night creatures begin a cacophony that is a bit unsettling to those unfamiliar
with swamp sounds. Once you get accustomed to them, you begin to relax and soon you’ll
become one with the environment. If you go, don’t fail to bring a good pair of binoculars
and a camera with at least twice the amount of film you think you will need. It’s a long
walk to the nearest store for more!

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