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Wild Times On New Orleans' North Shore

Thirty-nine miles makes a world of difference. Take St. Tammany Parish for example. It's just 39 miles from New Orleans; yet a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Easy's party-time atmosphere. In fact, the quiet north shore of Lake Pontchartrain offers visitors a different kind of wild life; one that requires binoculars and a field identification guide. Access hasn't been overlooked either; as paved trails, boardwalks and a local can-do attitude makes St. Tammany an ideal choice for all nature lovers.

The best place to start your north shore adventure is at the St. Tammany Parish Visitors Center in Mandeville. Here you'll find brochures and information on all the area attractions, along with detailed road maps of the parish. Outside you'll find an accessible boardwalk, so take a few minutes to wheel around and enjoy the sights and sounds of the surrounding wetlands.

Mandeville is a good place to access the Tammany Trace, a 31 mile Rails-to-Trails conversion that runs from Covington to Slidell. This paved pedestrian trail follows the old Illinois Central Railroad corridor over the wetlands and woods of St. Tammany Parish. The Tammany Trace includes over 30 bridges which traverse wetlands and swamps filled with wildlife. Take your binoculars, as it's a great birding area.

Just east of Mandeville, you'll find another great birding area, the Northlake Nature Center. This wildlife refuge includes 400 acres of ancient pines, hardwood forest, marshes and beaver ponds. Known locally as "St. Tammany's Secret Garden", the Northlake Nature Center is the headquarters for the Great Louisiana BirdFest. This annual event is held during the spring migration, when many species travel north from Mexico and South America. A level boardwalk which winds out over the marsh also makes a great accessible alternative to a swamp tour. Just wheel out, watch and listen.

Photo of boardwalk in the Northlake Nature Center
Boardwalk in the Northlake Nature Center
Photo by Charles Pannell

For a different kind of wildlife experience, head up to the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom. Technically, the Global Wildlife Center is a wild animal park; however the animals are from "wild". In fact, Global Wildlife encourages visitors to "get eye to eye with the wildlife". And believe me, it's a very up-close-and-personal experience!

Guided tours of the compound are conducted in covered wagons pulled by tractors. The wagons are ramped for easy wheelchair access. Visitors are encouraged to feed the animals; and the animals recognize the wagons as their meal ticket. Camels, giraffes, bison, water buffalo and scores of other animals descend on the wagons, as visitors, feed, photograph and pet them. It's really a great experience! Don't forget to take plenty of film, as it's a great photo opportunity.

Photo of Candy feeding Elsie the Camel
Candy gives Elsie a snack
Photo by Charles Pannell

And of course, you just can't leave St. Tammany without taking a swamp tour. To be honest, there aren't any swamp tours with roll-on wheelchair access; however Dr. Paul Wagner can accommodate some wheelchair-users. In fact, he's the only swamp tour operator who offers any level of wheelchair access. In order to take his swamp tour, you must transfer to the boat, and leave your wheelchair at the dock. Dr. Wagner and his staff are happy to assist with transfers, and the seats in the boat provide a good level of back support.

The two hour tour of the cypress swamp gives visitors an excellent opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at the native flora and fauna. Dr. Wagner is a wetland ecologist and he offers a good overview of the history, folklore and ecology of the swamp and its inhabitants. His in-depth tour is informative as well as entertaining, and it's the perfect finale to a St. Tammany wildlife adventure.