Sunday, December 21, 2008

A ride to remember

My visit to Cameron Parish, where nature yields both incredible beauty and stunning challenges, was as uplifting as it was sobering. I won’t forget it.

Nature will have its say

The serenity of the scene belied a sobering truth: the beach is eroding at roughly 40 feet inward each year. Every bit of beach the queens walked on in their visit—and everything you see in this photo—will be under water by the time the Fur & Wildlife Festival returns in January 2010.

Gifts of the sea

The refuge ends at the Gulf of Mexico at a lovely beach of coarse, pale sand. Except it isn’t sand at all, but the tiny remnants of countless wave-worn shells. The queens enjoyed picking among the abundant in tact shells, some as big as grapefruit.

Not so fast

Trying to squeeze through a narrow cut-out in dense marsh,

Refuge Manager Perry (left), the Cotton Queen Brandy Matulich

(far right), and the Fur & Wildlife Pageant director Vicki Little

(near right), found themselves stuck and listing to one side—

not a problem except for being miles from true terra firma

with a lively alligator population calling the marsh home. But

with Scooter adding his muscle and talking Vicki through

driving while he and Guthrie gave a good heave, the airboat

and its passengers ended up free in the end.

Faster than a speeding bullet

While visitors are welcome to certain parts of the refuge in
specific months, able to do crabbing and crawfish trapping,
only the staff have full access to the 26-mile coastline via
airboats, which are powered by enormous airplane engines.
The Fur Queen arranged for her guests to zip through the
marshland at thrill-ride speed aboard airboats like this one,
which she shares with the Frog Queen.

Guardians of the kingdom

The Fur & Wildlife Queen is a rare queen who represents not just an industry or town but an ecosystem. The refuge that is part of her domain is protected, preserved, and studied by a
team of biologists, including Philip Trosclair—better known as Scooter—who grew up nearby, interned here as a teen, got his degree, and returned for his adult career. At left, he shows an alligator skull found in the mud. The institutional memory rests in the experience of Refuge Manager Guthrie Perry, who has worked here for decades, and written books based on his research. Here, Perry introduces the visiting queens to the refuge, describing the challenges it currently faces.

Smile pretty

The Fur queen’s next stop led her peers to the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, 76,000 acres of marshland. Home to ducks, geese, spoonbill, egrets, deer, armadillo, muskrat, nutria, and mink, among other species, the refuge is perhaps best known for its alligators. But at the visitor’s center, your first greeter is this madly grinning coyote, which was bagged in the refuge. Chelsea tries to match his smile with some killer whites of her own.

Used to be my playground

The final stop in our tour of damage
and recovery areas were the old
school grounds. The original Cameron
schools plot had multiple buildings,
including the auditorium where the
Fur queen was crowned each year.
Rita wiped all that out, leaving only a
cement footprint, where you can still
see the outline of the aisles once
walked by audiences for school
plays and concerts. After the
schools were rebuilt in one building
a few miles away, the old school
grounds became the festival site—
until Ike roared through this year,
not only blasting the festival site
but leveling the new school.
With board members homeless and
the town struggling to rebuild, the
festival has been cancelled until 2010.

Movin' on up

One regulation put in place after Rita was that all houses must be built at a specific elevation or manually elevated at levels ranging from 4 to 12 feet (depending on the zone), yielding an unusual landscape of new homes perched on stilts of various materials (concrete block and brick mostly, though some are wooden). One re-builder christened the result with the amusing title at far left.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Many residents have not yet been able to return and their empty wrecked homes stand as a testimony to their loss. Houses are spray-painted with their street addresses (though the houses themselves may not have ended up where they stood before the storm) and the owner’s names, a poignant reminder that these were once neighborhoods. FEMA has become something of the hand that giveth and the hand that taketh away; after initially offering money for newly homeless residents who’d had no insurance, FEMA has recently issued a new map prohibiting the rebuilding of property in 80% of the parish, leaving residents with literally no place to call home again. The state is appealing the ruling.


After volunteering in
the morning, the queens
headed deep into Cameron
Parish, where the hurricane
aftermath is evident
everywhere. 1800 of the
homes in the Parish were
destroyed by Ike, with the
majority of homes in the town
of Cameron wiped out.
This came just three years after
Rita destroyed 90% of the town.

Home is where the hurt is

The banner at right is hung on the Christmas tree in the children's room of the Calcasieu Women's Shelter, where the Fur Queen was joined by the Frog and Cotton queens for a morning of community service, helping do clean-up, sorting children's toys, and doing small home repairs in the women's rooms. Hearing from a shelter staffer that a woman is abused every 9 seconds somewhere in the country really made an impression. As Brandy, the Cotton Queen (far right), said after meeting several of the families housed there, “I realized how sheltered I’ve actually been.”

Sometimes you feel like a crown, sometimes you don't

A Fur Queen has to enjoy the outdoors, even if she’s never picked up a gun or skinned a wild animal in her life. Lauren Naquin shows both sides of the Fur Queen lifestyle here: dressing up for formal events and dressing down to head into a nature reserve, as shown, where she has swapped her crown for noise-canceling headphones to board an airboat on the day she showed us around.

Cameron Parish: Home of the Fur & Wildlife Festival

Cameron Parish, Louisiana, is the largest of the state's parishes in land mass—1900 square miles—but second smallest in population, with just over 8,000 residents. It’s endless combination of open prairie, vast marshes, and bayous make it a sportsman’s paradise, and the natural home to the Louisiana Fur & Wildlife Festival. Since 1955, the festival has involved skeet-shooting, nutria-skinning, oyster-shucking, and more. But not this year: Hurricane Ike has wreaked so much havor, the January 2009 festival has been cancelled. This week, the Fur queen invited several of her fellow festival queens to come see her Parish anyway, both in its devastation and its natural splendor.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When the clown poops out, it's time to go home.

All good festivals must come

to an end and the 62nd Orange

Festival was no exception, as

this clown--unable to tie one

more balloon animal--made clear.

The thrill of victory?

Among the more challenging events were the satsuma race--in which three entire satsumas (like mandarin oranges) are eaten at once--and the kumquat stuffing, in which as many kumquats as possible are stuffed into the competitor's mouth (though not consumed). The respective winners were Jenna Levert, Gonzales Jambalaya Queen (left), and Blaine Nielsen, the current Orange Queen (right), though these were victories neither could celebrate with a smile, for obvious reasons.

Go speed racer, go!

Among the citrus-themed events, festival queens participated in citrus peeling contests (to see who could make the longest ribbon of peel) and rapid orange-eating. The Andouille, St. John Sugar, Gheens Bon Mange, Orange, and Gonzales Jambalaya queens show how it's done.

Heart attack on a plate.

This Orange Festival midway offering looks really really good and really really bad all at once. Please don't tell the Surgeon General.

The Queen Mother only wears a hat in England

Politicians love to talk about "soccer moms," but Louisiana has a special breed of its own: Queen Moms. These are the moms of festival queens, who often drive their daughters all over the state and, in some cases, put in nearly as many hours on behalf of their festivals as the queens do. One Queen Mom--as her lapel pin identifies her--is Dawn Childs, mother of Queen Cotton Brandy Matulich. Dawn always has her camera with her, which makes her one of the Mamarazzi (one of my favorite terms), and the Orange Festival photos here are all hers.

Into the woods

It was cool enough by Louisiana standards (you know, 50's) to require winter coats as the festival queens from around the state arrived and explored the orange groves. Queen Cotton discovers that it isn't easy to pick oranges and keep your crown on at the same time. (Photos: Dawn Childs)

Not just for breakfast anymore: Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival

The Plaquemines Parish Orange festival is a 62-year tradition unbowed by hurricanes, including Katrina, which wiped out its original hometown and cost citrus growers 10 million dollars in losses. Though Buras, in the southern end of Lousiana's southermost parish, is still recovering, the festival continues to the north in Belle Chasse. This year's festival drew thousands this past weekend for a high-spirited time symbolized by Blossom and Man-Darin, the roving mascots (top left). Signs everywhere proclaimed "Think Orange" and there were plenty of citrus-themed activities, including orange races and citrus cook-offs, as well an art competition, whose winners included the maker of the all-fruit carnival scene below, which features terrified kumquats clearly desperate to get off the ride. (Top photo: Orange Festival. Bottom photo: Dawn Childs.)

Serious Sparkle

You might think an 8-tier Living Christmas Tree big enough
to house 20 full-grown adults might be enough stage decoration
for one event, but when the forty-plus visiting queens took
the stage at the Miss Festival of the Bonfires Queen pageant,
they completely out-dazzled even the enormous tree.
Though the queens are gone now, the bonfires burn this weekend
and Christmas Eve, so there's still time to find your way
to Lutcher for a view. (Photos: Dawn Childs)

It's all fun and games till someone loses a pie

Being good sports, the visiting queens--
some having traveled from hours away--
made of the best of being trapped inside,
with old school games and silly fun,
including the classic pie-in-the-face
trick, as the Catfish Queen demonstrates below.
(Photos Dawn Childs)

Another sign of the times.

This is the sled made by the Hurricane Queen. (Yes, there's a Hurricane Festival. It strikes me as being in the "if you can't beam 'em, join 'em" spirit.)
(Photo: Dawn Childs)

Charlie's Angels meet Martha Stewart

One tradition is for the visiting festival queens to build sleds big enough for them to ride in down the levee. Here, the queens show their crafty skills, wielding glue guns like weapons of mass creation. The fruits of their labors were sleds themed to match their home festivals but, sadly, the levee races were rained out, which meant the only sledding was done on a gymnasium floor. (Photos: Dawn Childs)

Burn, Baby, Burn: Festival of the Bonfires

Lutcher, Lousiana (population 3,600) is home to one of the state’s most visually arresting traditions: the festival of the bonfire. This weekend, 18-foot tall log pyres will rise alongside the Mississippi levee, and each night, a different one will be set ablaze. This is a prelude to Christmas Eve, when 100 such bonfires will illuminate the levees throughout St. James Parish, a tradition that local legend says grew out of a need to light Santa’s way through the Bayou. The festival period actually started two weeks ago with Bonfire pageant day, when visiting festival queens (including Fur, Cotton, and Cattle, pictured) came from around the state to kick things off.
Photos left and right from and Dawn Childs, respectively.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Meanwhile, back at home...

As I take a break from my trips south
for my third book, I am at home in
time for my second book,
A Little Fruitcake: A Childhood in Holidays,
to return to book stores. Readers of
A Little Fruitcake will discover
why I'm so interested in small town
festivals--my own roots are in a town of
2,000 people in rural Maine, which is the
setting for the book. The 12 stories
in this book are all set around Christmases
as I battle with my grandmother and the
rest of my clan over how Christmas
should be. A Little Fruitcake was a Today
Show holiday gift pick last Christmas
but, as a seasonal title, has been hibernating
ever since. Now that the holidays are here,
it's available again, and I'm back to spreading
the word. It's a good glimpse of my affection
for small town traditions and my sense of
humor, both of which I hope to bring
to the new book.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Community Service Field Notes: Traveling Wall in Sabine Parish

The Traveling Wall replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial came to Many, Louisiana last week and was hosted by Sabine Parish; Kelli Sepulvado, shown here, visited the Wall in her role as Sabine Parish Fairs & Festival Queen. Sabine Parish had 12 soldiers whose names are among the more than 58,000 inscribed on the wall, including a Zwolle High classmate of Kelli’s dad. Kelli’s uncle served in the Vietnam War but came home safe, which cannot be said of the loved ones of some of the families she visited with in her time at the memorial. On the final day of the visit, 50 veterans arrived by motorcycle in a group and rode a procession around the wall in honor of the soldiers. Kelli describes the entire event as making her feel both “proud and sad that so many have given their lives.”