If you look west across the Mississippi River from Natchez, you’re gazing at an unseen galaxy of lakes, bayous, rivers and swamps. At the outer edge of this realm lies Larto Lake, which should meet anybody’s definition of “back of beyond.”
Some local fishermen travel there for the white perch or bass, but at 21⁄2 to 3 hours one way, it’s a far piece for a day trip. Nevertheless, that’s where I set my sights last week. Over the years I’ve visited one spot after another in that galaxy but had never made it to Larto.
That’s not hard to understand. Not only is it a long distance, it’s not on the way to anything. It’s virtually at the end of the road.
Entering Louisiana, I cruised through Vidalia, Ferriday, Frogmore and Wildsville before crossing the Black River at Jonesville. Then I turned south on Highway 124, which more or less parallels the Black.
To my left were woods and glimpses of the river and its backwaters. To my right stretched flat, black, newly plowed farm fields reaching to the horizon like prairie.
Larto Lake is a horseshoe aiming north with its tips pointing south. Highway 124 ends at the lake, and Highway 3102 turns right to follow its inner curve.
According to my map, a cut-through road bypasses 3102 and goes straight across to Larto Bayou, which flows out of the lake at the southwest end. My plan was to drive there, launch my canoe and paddle down the bayou a ways before checking out the main lake. (The bayou empties into Red River about five miles down.)
The road passed tiny Central High School and became rough, narrow and crooked. A man standing outside his house stared in wonder as I drove by, and I soon discovered why: A gate blocked the road a little farther on.
I turned around and rejoined Highway 3102. Looks like I would check out the lake first, then the bayou.
I passed Larto Baptist Church and began seeing houses and camps on the left and the lake to the right. Stretching before me was a quaint village.
I rolled the window down and smelled woodsmoke in the cool November air. The lake reflected the blue sky, etched with piers, docks and cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. Many of the houses stood on stilts.
I felt like I had entered another country, and a pleasant one at that.
Among the camps were a convenience store, bait shops, RV parks and cabin rentals. A few people worked in their yards, mowing, raking or burning.
Past the village, farm fields opened out to the left. The lake ended, the road turned right and I came to the bridge over Larto Bayou.
A glimpse downstream to the left did away with any notions of canoeing there. The bayou tapered to a narrow mud wallow. This was low-water season, after all.
But the right side, which led to the lake, looked plenty wide, so I pulled over in a grassy area next to a tall yellow cross (which bore no markings to indicate why it was there).
The bridge was actually a spillway. Larto is a natural lake, but a spillway was built in 1959 to keep it from getting too low. On the downstream side, a dead raccoon lay on the wet cement.
I pulled on rubber boots and life vest, slid my canoe into the water and took my seat. Before I could push off, a truck stopped on the bridge and the driver dumped two ice chest loads of fish scraps on the other side. At least they’re biodegradable.
I paddled away from the bridge, rounded a curve and found myself immersed in sweet nature.
A hawk soared up the bayou. A great horned owl hooted softly in the shadows. Sunshine painted the ivory trunk and golden leaves of a tall sycamore.
The channel led between swampy woods. I paddled through a patch of glossy green water hyacinth and slid over a log, then turned left onto a wide channel that led to the main lake. Flanking the channel were masses of buttonbushes, a familiar sight to oxbow fishermen. Winter seed heads dangled like miniature gum balls.
When I saw an opening in the bushes to my left, I slid the canoe in, ducking under the branches and dodging spiders. I heard a splash and swirl up ahead and emerged onto an enclosed pool maybe two inches deep.
I had seen an alligator in a pond driving down here, and half expected to come up on one on here. None appeared, and I pushed on through the bushes to another broad stretch of sun-glistened, breeze-ruffled water.
Great blue herons, white egrets, anhingas and buzzards swooped here and yonder. I eased along, slipping every now and then into the backwaters. There was beaver sign aplenty: gnawed tree trunks, stripped branches, felled trees.
At last the channels merged to form open lake. I could see for miles. On the right side were houses, on the left nothing but woods, part of the vast Dewey W. Wills Wildlife Management Area.
I crossed the lake and entered another buttonbush thicket against the wooded shore. Here I discovered a beaver lodge whose entrances were exposed in the low water.
I’ve seen beaver lodges aplenty, but normally the entrances are submerged. Beavers dive under water, enter their lodge and come up to a protected, relatively dry area.
These tunnels appeared to go straight through. If there was an elevated area, I couldn’t tell it. I stepped out to examine it but sank in the silt so clambered back into my canoe.
I poked the lodge with my paddle but no one was home. Yet there was fresh-packed mud and beaver tracks on the outside, so it was still in use. And it was well protected, inaccessible to virtually another except a canoe.
One of the joys of exploring the outdoors is finding things and places you’ve never seen before — especially when they’re at the back of beyond.