Willis releases book on Catahoula Lake history

Jack Willis, a long-time correspondent for The Piney Woods Journal and The Jena Times, was featured at a book signing at the LaSalle Parish Library in Jena on December 8 for his newly published book, "Catahoula Lake Chronicles: The View from Indian Bluff".

Hardback autographed copies of the book are available from The Piney Woods Bookshelf at the Piney Woods Journal in Winnfield for $35 each.

"Catahoula Lake Chronicles" is the first book of its kind that describes in detail the history of Catahoula Lake along with some of its colorful legends and folklore.

Catahoula Lake spans some 30,000 acres in the Louisiana parishes of LaSalle and Rapides, and is actually a gigantic basin, an open sump area, roughly 16 to 18 miles long and 6 to 8 miles wide.

The lake is the most important inland wetland for waterfowl and shorebirds in Louisiana, providing habitat for as many as a half million waterfowl and at least 20 species of shorebirds. Hunters and fishers come from all over the world to experience the wonders of Catahoula Lake.

All of the author's proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the ministry of Sanctuary Family Worship Center of Jena.

Jack Willis, a longtime storyteller from Jena, spins his yarns, weaving historical fact with legendary tales from the people who have lived off the lake and the land for hundreds of years.

Willis was born in Good Pine, a sawmill town, in 1936. Good Pine and Jena, roughly 20 miles north of Catahoula Lake, was the home of one of Willis' grandfathers who had been a 'market hunter' earlier in life, killing waterfowl, packing them in brine, and shipping them to fancy restaurants in Baton Rouge. Later in life, he was a stock tenderer for Good Pine Lumber Company. Willis' other grandfather was a railroad track contractor who built one line to within a mile of Catahoula Lake.

Willis attended Southwestern Louisiana University (currently called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), in Lafayette, in the early 1950s. He dropped out of college to work pipeline-engineering crews, and spent over 20 years as an inspector/surveyor for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

At the age of 53, Willis went back to college and acquired a B.S. degree in addictive disease counseling. After 15 years as a counselor, he was granted a judicial disability, retired, and began to compile stories, tales, yarns and true facts relating to that Grand Lady known as Catahoula Lake.

He continues to write a weekly column for The Jena Times named "Grass Roots and Cockleburs" as well as monthly features titled "Woodlands and Waterways Echoes" and "If It Ain't Country...It Ain't Music". He also writes folklore and personality pieces for The Piney Woods Journal.

Excerpts from the "Prologue" gives readers an insight into what can be found in the book: "Nestled twenty miles south of Jena in LaSalle Parish and about fifteen miles northeast of Alexandria in Rapides Parish, Central Louisiana boasts one of Mother Nature's truly great phenomenons, Catahoula Lake. The term 'lake' is actually a misnomer since this natural wonder is a gigantic basin, an open sump area, roughly sixteen to eighteen miles long and six to eight miles wide.

"Nature lovers enjoyed one of the area's most renowned guilty pleasures by driving right up on Indian Bluff with its unmatched scenic vista before private interests put a barrier fence across the access road because loiterers and wastrels polluted the pristine view. Once, a visit to Indian Bluff afforded one an unfettered six to eight miles view across to the tree line on the southern edge of this magnificent, periodic body of water.

Several years ago, one visitor, upon viewing the vast expanse of this wondrous creation from the well-known headland, was heard to remark, 'I've seen the Grand Canyon and now I've seen Catahoula Lake, but I'm more impressed with this Louisiana attraction than that big ditch in Colorado and Arizona.' This miniature inland sea, located in our backyard, almost defies definition and explanation; it offers its guests a more diverse and more complex act of creation than most people around the nation are privy to in a lifetime."

The watershed which furnishes the water supply for this huge backwater depository has its beginnings near Arcadia, Louisiana, with the principle drainage area encompassing over 2,550 square miles, while draining a corridor 80 miles long, and over 35 miles wide. Over 65 continually flowing creeks and streams feed into the lake through the Little River complex constituted principally from the merger near Rochelle, Louisiana, of Bayous Castor and Dugdemona.

Referred to as "The Lake" by peripheral residents of the sometimes rogue body of water, this natural treasure has two principle outflows: Old River and French Forks. These two streams merge just north of US Highway 84 at a juncture known for over three centuries as Lavaca, which is identical to a similar juncture of the Nueces and Pedernales Rivers that flow together to form the Lavaca River south of San Antonio. Lavaca was the eastern-most outpost of the San Antonio de Bexar land holdings of the Spanish Texas Empire. This reunion of outflow lake streams form a tributary called Little River-once called Catahoula River-which merges with the Tensas and Ouachita Rivers near Jonesville to form Black River, which eventually flows into Red River. Saline Bayou is a sluggish stream created from the overflow waters at the southwest end of Catahoula Lake that eventually flows into Red River as well.

The water level on this maverick lake can vary from zero (0) mean Sea Level to thirty (30) Mean Sea Level several times in a year dependent upon rainfall. The area of the lakebed covered by water can fluctuate from as few as 5,000 acres up to 40,000 in flood stage. Verifiably, an area with a 50 mile radius, using the lake as a hub, is affected from recreational usage of this magnificent body of water, with many people in this geographic confine utilizing it for boating, hunting or fishing.

In-depth studies of the remnants of ancient Native American artifacts found in mounds or tumuli point to the dependence and reverence the early inhabitants of the area had for the lake. Most studies lead to the accepted hypothesis that these early red men congregated around the lake, dependent upon season, because of the astronomical abundance of wild life, waterfowl, vegetation and other valuable food sources abounding there. Some of the original grasses, legumes and tuberous flora played a large role in the nutrition of the early Americans as well as local wildlife such as deer, waterfowl and feral swine. Numerous archaeological sites around the rim of the lake have proven to be invaluable storehouses of information concerning the lifestyle and. diets of these early inhabitants. Scientifically oriented "digs" have unearthed relics such as weaponry, tools, and bones that reveal the importance of Catahoula Lake to its indigenous population. A complete skeleton of a Native American was unearthed totally intact and donated to the LSU Museum of Anthropology with very little, if any credit to the discoverer and meticulous declaimer James Ed Yule.

Traditional folklore relate tales of Indian Chiefs, accompanied by their "shaman", or medicine man, traveling sometimes many miles to the promontory known as Indian Bluff at the occasion of the spring and fall solstice to pray and offer sacrifices to the Great Spirit. The Native American reverence for this unique body of water is summed up in one of their names for the lake, which translates "sacred waters."

Arriving in the 1790's, the first contingent of Caucasian settlers quickly gauged the pulsations of the lake regarding times of flood and times of drought with two seasons marked by the time periods when water was up in early fall until it would leave in early summer. Sometimes, due to the vast watershed of the lake, a sudden inundation on the floodplain could cause the lake to change from a meandering stream across the length of the central marsh area, to waters levels jumping 10-12 feet almost overnight. The months of June, July, August, September, October, and November were usually referred to as the "dry months". December, January, February, March, April, and May were referred to as the "wet season". The monthly categorizations were derived from Mean Sea Level records from decades past but subject to instant change according to the whims of Mother Nature.