The road to Cat Island is closed … again.
The road was opened briefly a few weeks ago for the first time in years, providing nature lovers and hunters greater access to the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge in St. Francisville.
But high water on the Mississippi River forced officials to shut it back down again just a few days later.
The refuge is a hidden gem in West Feliciana Parish that features one of the tallest bald cypress trees in the country, but access has been limited since the 2016 floods washed out the only road leading to it.
Seeing a small window to let visitors back in after the road was repaired, federal wildlife officials re-opened it on Oct. 19, until high water on the river soon led them to close it back down.
“It's Mother Nature,” said Jimmy Laurent, the manager at the refuge. “We can do whatever we want and think we're manipulating it, but in the end, those constant flooding cycles are increasing from what I'm seeing."
The river exceeded 24 feet recently, making it unsafe for visitors until those levels drop, officials said.
The Mississippi often rises and jumps its banks in the late fall, Laurent said, but the soggy past year complicated the refuge's long-awaited reopening.
The river’s height in Baton Rouge shattered records by staying above its flood stage for more than 200 days until it slowly started to drop in August.
This past year was the longest Laurent can recall the refuge being flooded, and he said he worries about the longer term impact on the refuge.
Abrupt declines in river levels can also damage trails at Cat Island by leaving a blanket of silt that needs to be scraped off, Laurent said.
Repair crews sometimes have to delay repairs to trails because the ground is so wet it can’t support heavy machinery. Long periods of trees underwater also make the soil unable to support them, a potential hazard for visitors.
"It's so saturated, (the trees) just keel over,” Laurent said, adding that frequent and more prolonged flooding has complicated conservation efforts.
Even if river levels lower enough to reopen the refuge, Laurent said, it’s difficult to gauge if they'll be able to, or for how long.
And that's a disappointment to the visitors from around the world who journey to see Cat Island's champion bald cypress, a nearly 100-foot spectacle that’s one of the largest in the country.
“It’s really one of those hidden treasures,” said Laurie Walsh, St. Francisville director of tourism and Main Street program.
Wildlife officials plan to re-open the refuge if the river drops below 24-feet, but that’s unlikely to happen soon.
Forecasters expect the river will run high through at least the month of November, and it typically doesn’t lower near the refuge until early spring.
Phil Grigsby, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Slidell, said long-range forecasts show a potentially normal year along the Mississippi in Louisiana in the spring. But those predictions depend on several different factors, such as local rainfall and upstream precipitation.
Forecasters predict the midwestern states upstream are likely to have normal precipitation and colder temperatures this winter.
”It looks like we’re not going to have it be an issue,” Grigsby said.