Some things are so steeped in tradition that change hardly occurs. People simply appreciate the event for what it has been for many years and probably will be for many more to come.
That’s how it is with the Bayou Liberty Pirogue Races. For the 62nd year, the boat races will take place on the first Sunday of June — this year on June 1 — and will start and finish just off La. 433, at the Bayou Liberty Boat Launch adjacent to St. Genevieve Catholic Church.
The festival grounds, which are free to enter, will be centered at the launch. Event Chairwoman Beth Pichon DiMarco said there is a change that people should make note of this year, however.
“We’re bringing back the craft booths,” she said. “That’s new to this year, but everything else is the same.”
And that’s how so many people expect the Bayou Liberty Pirogue Races to be — steeped in time, in tradition and a simplicity that speaks volumes about how a nicely sized portion of the Bayou Liberty community and nearby Slidell spends the first Sunday of June each year.
The races will be held from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m., beginning with a blessing of the paddlers. Then, the time-honored litany of races will begin — heading from the launch toward Lake Pontchartrain and back again, where a crowd of fans awaits to cheer every stroke of the paddle.
The schedule will begin with a common boat (pirogue) race at 1:15 p.m. That opening race will be followed by competitions for boys ages 13-16 and boys 8-12 and then girls in the same age groups. There will be two-person canoe races, a kayak race and a race where all participants are blindfolded.
The first of the biggest races will begin at approximately 4:30 p.m. when the Men’s Over-40 Championship will be held. That will be followed by the Women’s Over-40 Championship at 5:15 p.m. The Women’s Championship will be held at 5:30 p.m. and the Men’s Championship will begin at 6:30 p.m.
The scene largely has been the same since 1951, when pirogue races were staged by the Holy Name Society of St. Genevieve’s Church. The group sought to raise money to build a new church building for the community at the time, and it eventually had enough funds to help construct the sanctuary. The church stood until 2005, when Hurricane Katrina pushed more than a half dozen feet of water through its doors. A new church now is in place on the same site.
In 1953, the Bayou Liberty Civic Club began handling the races.
DiMarco’s father, Armand “Junior” Pichon, finished fourth in the first Bayou Liberty Pirogue Race in 1951. After he passed away in March 2012, his daughter assumed the duties of event chairperson. She now sits on the judge’s stand where her father once surveyed the crowed. Her brother, Mike Pichon, will emcee this year’s races.
“It’s a tradition for my family, for sure,” she said. “But really, it’s a big tradition for the entire community. When we were kids in Bayou Liberty, we always waited and looked forward to the pirogue races. We all paddled and we didn’t miss it any year. Now, we still have mostly locals, but some people come from across the lake, from Washington Parish. We even had a couple paddlers come from Gulfport (Mississippi) and one from Houston.”
In addition to the spirited paddling taking place on the bayou, there will be a plethora of food available for patrons to purchase. Burgers, hot dogs, gumbo, red beans and rice, potato salad, a sweets booth and much more will be open with wares ready for sampling. There will be ample cold beer, soft drinks and water for sale, as well. Carnival-style games will be set up to entertain the younger set, too.
A raffle will feature a fiberglass pirogue as first prize; a Phil Galatas print as second prize; and a bench adorned with a fleur-de-lis as third prize. Tickets for the raffle cost $1 each. For those interested in taking part in silent auctions, numerous items will be up for private bidding.
And as DiMarco mentioned, the craft booths will return to the festival grounds. Cost to reserve a craft booth is $75. Anyone interested in renting booth space may call (985) 643-2581.
Band of Brothers will play live music throughout the day and several special guests are due to sit in with the local band, DiMarco said.
No ice chests are allowed at the Bayou Liberty Pirogue Races. The rule will be strictly enforced.
Proceeds from this year’s festival will benefit the continued effort to rebuild the Bayou Liberty Civic Center, which sustained major damage in both hurricanes Katrina and Isaac. DiMarco said hopes are that the civic center, home to many Bayou Liberty-area events, can be reopened by the fall.
The festival grounds are located at 58189 La. 433, where the Bayou Liberty Bridge meets St. Genevieve Catholic Church. The area is easily accessed via Thompson Road off of U.S. 190, or by continuing from Olde Towne Slidell down La. 433 until reaching the bridge.
“We’re hoping for a great turnout and some great weather,” DiMarco said. “What better way to spend the first of June than at the Bayou Liberty Pirogue Races?”
Andrew Canulette is guest columnist for Tammany Times. Sharon Edwards will return from vacation next week.