Using some paddle diplomacy to boost our state’s sullied image

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January brought record-setting rainfall to south Louisiana, but in February the venerable gods of Outdoor Recreation finally prevailed and produced a picture-perfect afternoon for putting a paddle in the water.

The cerulean sky was set in high definition, cloudless and stunningly bright. A subtle breeze slipped in from the southeast, ferrying just enough warmth from the Gulf Coast to sap the winter chill while providing a slight rolling texture to the water’s surface.

Gulls squawked giddily overhead as they hunted for a quick and tasty meal. A large brown pelican with a six-foot wingspan gobbled up a wriggling sac-a-lait. Timid leatherback turtles floated with their snouts just above the waterline and dropped down out of sight as my kayak approached.

The setting…Atchafalaya Basin?

Nope.

Honey Island Swamp?

Nope.

Sabine Wildlife Refuge?

Nope.

Midtown New Orleans?

Yep.

Wait, what?! Paddling a kayak in midtown New Orleans? Yes, it’s a fact.

When most people think of visiting New Orleans, they envision themselves taking a steamboat cruise, munching on beignets at Café du Monde, visiting the Audubon Aquarium, dining in a five-star restaurant, listening to jazz in some dark smoky night club, shopping in the Riverwalk, begging for Mardi Gras beads, strolling around Jackson Square or stumbling down Bourbon Street – anything but paddling a kayak just 10 minutes from the Vieux Carre, so close to NOLA’s central business district you can see the skyline through the trees from the seat of your boat.

Allow me to backtrack a bit.

While the Sugar Bowl, Super Bowl and Mardi Gras made headlines as huge tourism hauls for the Big Easy, the annual meeting of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association did not. Nevertheless, more than 8,000 co-op folks from across the country – and a few from other countries where electric co-ops are helping build power delivery systems to serve small towns and remote villages – came to Louisiana last month for the nearly week-long meeting.

Actually, this was just one of many occasions New Orleans has hosted electric co-op groups and their related organizations. There are more than 900 electric co-ops in the U.S. divided into 10 geographical regions and each one of those regions holds an annual meeting. Additionally, there are many specialized cooperative-affiliated professional groups including communications, member services, finance, safety, engineering and others that also hold individual annual meetings.

And every meeting planner soon discovers that anytime New Orleans is announced as the host site, attendance figures are sure to soar.

In any event, a co-op buddy of mine from Pennsylvania was planning to travel to Louisiana a few days early for the national meeting last month and I wanted to plan an activity that would take us somewhere – anywhere – beyond the French Quarter.

I happened to be flipping through a tourism brochure and discovered a guide service that offered a kayak excursion along Bayou St. John, which is a narrow body of water the natives and early settlers once used as a shortcut between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The bayou runs along the Esplanade Ridge adjacent to the eastern border of City Park and slices through some of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods rich with tradition and charm.

At this point you’re probably wondering how any stretch of water in suburban New Orleans can be anything but a noxious, fetid, weed-choked ditch or stagnant slate gray concrete-banked canal. Well, the next time you’re in New Orleans, go see for yourself. Sara and Sonny (www.kayakitiyat.com) will meet you at the designated launching spot at the corner of Moss and Esplanade and set you up with a yak and everything else you’ll need to enjoy an afternoon in the great suburban outdoors.

You can opt for the two-hour tour that circumnavigates an island with lots of uniquely-designed upscale homes or the four-hour tour that runs all the way up to Lake Pontchartrain. Along the route, your guides will spin many tales describing the colorful history of the area and the curious characters who have passed through.

As you see folks jogging along the banks, walking their dogs, picnicking or tossing a Frisbee, and as you notice how clean and well-maintained the area is, it becomes apparent the local residents take pride in their neighborhood. And then you realize how starkly this calm, tranquil setting contrasts with the image many outsiders associate with NOLA.

I was happy to learn my friend had a wonderful time on our kayak tour and will take that positive experience in New Orleans back to his home in Pennsylvania. To be sure, sometimes it’s hard to defend a city that many people love for its wild heart but which often earns its reputation as a squalid, corrupt, graceless, dysfunctional cesspool. People are bound to form negative opinions when the lights go out during the Super Bowl, revelers get shot during Mardi Gras and former Mayor Ray Nagin is shown paraded before the TV cameras after being indicted for malfeasance in office.

The best answer I have is to show visitors another side of the city that often doesn’t make the headlines, places throughout the metropolitan area where hundreds of thousands of our fellow Louisianans live, work and play with great zeal and joie de vivre.

You might call it paddle diplomacy. Jay Dardenne can thank me later.