Making his rounds, park enforcement ranger James Dillon makes frequent stops for deer crossings. Some deer even lie down under the shade of thick oaks and tolerate a picture or two.
“Just as dusk falls, many deer come out of the woods into the open fields,” Dillon explained, pointing through his windshield to a field near a grove of trees. “At night, especially in the cooler months, you can look out and see tons of glowing eyes.”
Dillon says Fontainebleau is the busiest park in the state with more than 200,000 coming through the gates each year. He believes it is one of the state’s most diverse parks, including a sandy beach with swimming in Lake Pontchartrain, cypress forest beachfronts, primitive and RV camping, three group lodging facilities and trails through the forests.
The park was once a sugar plantation owned by Bernard de Marigny de Mandeville, who christened his estate Fontainebleau, based on a forest near Paris. Pulling up to a long row of oak trees, Dillon estimates they are more than 150 years old based on photographs they found.
“We were looking at old photographs, probably from the 1850s, suggesting the trees were there in the 1840s,” Dillon said, adding the photos also showed rows of slave quarters along the trees, and although the photos are not 100 percent definitive, it appears to be the same spot.
He said, “The historic features in the park include Native American sites and the sugar plantation ruins.”
Dillon grew up in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans, graduated from Brother Martin High School and received his undergraduate degree at the University of New Orleans with a major in geography. He was then commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force as a missile launch officer and did graduate work with a concentration in criminal and administrative law, along with tourism management.
“I was active in Boy Scouts and earned an Eagle Award,” he said. “We camped most frequently at Fontainebleau and Camp Salmen just outside of Slidell.”
For the past eight years, he has been a law enforcement ranger at Fontainebleau. Rangers serve as the park’s police with full arrest powers and frequent training, including first aid, CPR, firearms, search and rescue, and more.
“Ensuring the safety of visitors and employees is my top priority,” explained Dillon, commenting they have not made many arrests lately. “We frequently get called out to look for lost hikers on the trails.”
One of Dillon’s favorite things is introducing the park to people from outside the area. He recalls one group of campers from Norway that went swimming in the lake during the middle of winter.
“The weather at the time was cold by Louisiana standards,” he said. “But to them, it was perfect for swimming.”
Dillon said they have people visiting from every continent and some of the park staff is working on foreign languages to help communicate with the visitors.
“I am brushing up on my college German,” he said. “We also have others working on French and Spanish.”
During the fall, visitors closer to home fill up the RV campsites for LSU tailgating. Large groups get together and cook, inviting others they just met to join them for eats and to watch the game.
Another passion of Dillon’s is photography, and the park’s landscapes and wildlife offer premier opportunities for nature shots. Walking along a sandy stretch of cypress trees, Dillon says sunsets, especially when cold fronts blow through, are particularly stunning. He remembered a flock of roseate spoonbills that were blown into the area after a hurricane.
“These are very colorful birds, and the contrast between the destruction of the storm and their beautiful appearance seemed oddly comforting,” he said, adding he has always enjoyed the outdoors. “While I do have an office, I like to think of the outdoors as my real office.”
For information on the park and overnight accommodations, call (985) 624-4443 or (888) 677-3668. The waterside camps are closed due to damage from Hurricane Isaac. The visitor center and museum are also closed.
All other facilities on the park are open, including a log cabin lodge and three group facilities with full kitchens and dorms. For information, visit www.crt.state.la.us/louisiana-state-parks/parks/fontainebleau-state-park.
Deborah Burst writes about people behind the scenes of organizations and events in St. Tammany Parish. To reach her, email email@example.com.