Hope you’ve a good capitan when moseyin’ down the bayou in a pirogue.
Louisiana Swamp Guide
In this update:
Many visitors are surprised to learn that New Orleans sits well below sea level, almost as low as Death Valley. But unlike the centrally located desert, New Orleans is surrounded by water with the raging Mississippi to its south and Lake Pontchatrain to the north. Being so low near so much water, everyone knows that it is only a matter of time before a big hurricane turns New Orleans into America’s first underwater city.
The fragile existence of New Orleans is kept in check by what is said to be the best levee system in the country, stretching the distance of the Lake and River. As locks are often opened to relieve pressure on the levees, large tracts of wooded land are flooded with fresh water. The Atchafalya Basin is the largest of its kind in the state, covering a vast area of south-central Louisiana about 35-by-125 miles. Strictly controlled by the levee system, geologists had noted that without the protection, the Mississippi would pour straight into the basin.
It is these flooded lands that make up the majority of what is called a swamp. A swamp is simply a low, wooded area flooded by fresh water, whether from the rivers, tidal flows or ground water. Swamps and natural wetlands are crucial to the survival of many types of wildlife, most notably waterfowl and migratory birds. Other animals include snakes, turtles, raccoons, possums, beavers, and owls.
No animal of the swamps has captured the imagination of the people as alligators have. With an estimated population of more than 600,000 across the state, Southern Louisiana is literally infested with alligators. While they were almost extinct in the 1960s, they are now regularly hunted as a means of population control and raised on more than a hundred farms throughout the state for their meat and hides. Since 1873, alligator floats have been a regular feature in Mardi Gras parades. One alligator float in the Bacchus parade measured more than 110 feet long. In 1983, the American Alligator was officially recognized as the state reptile. Florida may try to claim a higher population of gators, but ours are more concentrated and often larger. The largest alligator on record was found in a Louisiana swamp near Opelousas in the early 1900s. It measured 19 feet 2 inches (5.8 meters), and was wide enough to house two men in its belly.
No alligators have received more attention than the 18 white alligators found in the state in 1987. No one knows for certain why they were born white, but they are not albinos, as people often assume. Their eyes are actually blue, and their hides are often compared to white chocolate. Many scientists speculate that white alligators have been born throughout the centuries but were often vulnerable to their enemies because of their color. (Even baby green alligators often fall victim to large birds, turtles, and fish.) The remaining white alligators now live at the Audubon Zoo and the Aquarium of the Americas, when not touring other zoos around the country.
It is no surprise that alligators have often been misunderstood animals. More people are killed by bees in one year that people are killed by alligators in 10 years. Not to be confused with the man-eating crocs of Australia and Africa, American Alligators, even the largest ones, often prefer to stay away from humans. The few attacks are often provoked by people feeding or intentionally pestering them. Stumbling upon a mother’s nest can often provoke unwanted attention from an angry gator, but simple rules remain: stay out of the water near large gators, especially at night, and don’t swim in heavy vegetation where you may accidentally stumble upon a gator. More of a concern is the fact that large alligators often snatch family dogs wandering near the water’s edge! If you’re just looking to get down with gators, then head over to Alligator Park in Natchoitoches where you can feed them, play with them, and then eat them for dinner later that night!
While alligators may be misunderstood creatures, they are still respected, unlike the Nutria – the swamps’ most hated animal. Also called “nutra rats” by the locals, millions of these orange-toothed large rodents have chewed half the state’s protective marshlands to bare mud. Acting as barriers to prevent coastal erosion, hundreds of square miles have been destroyed by these hungry critters. The state of Louisiana has recently declared Nutrias Enemy Number One. Local SWAT teams use them for target practice, and local chefs are saying how tasty nutra-rats are. With the ability to reproduce at alarming rates, nutrias can be found almost anywhere there is water: in the swamps, on the coasts, even in the ditches of the city. Louisiana Marine Education Resources has more on everything you ever wanted to know about nutrias.
Much like many of our planet’s natural treasures, the swamps and marshes of Louisiana are in danger, slowly disappearing as the days go by. Cypress trees have been overexploited by loggers, while clearing and dredging have uprooted many of the fragile ecosystems. Oil companies have been searching further and further into the marshes and bayous of the state – it’s hard to go anywhere in the Atchafalya without running into an oil platform. But as locals discover there is much money to be made in eco-tourism, things may slowly begin to change.
A gator crawls out of the water, hungry for nutria, your dog, or just the grub being dangled by your tour guide. Gator sightings are common on swamp tours.
There are numerous day tours of surrounding swamps of New Orleans as well as the ones in Cajun Country. If your time is limited, check into wandering around Jean Lafitte or booking a tour in Houma. However, if you are interested in having a more in-depth experience, it is worth looking into heading out west to the Atchafalya for a couple of days. (More on Cajun Country next month!)
Almost all operators have the same agenda of taking you out in the swamps on a small barge to see the wildlife, which will always include alligators. More often than not, a man will dangle chunks of meat over the boat and feed the gators from his hand, making for a great photo opportunity. The spring and summertime is best for viewing wildlife. Most 2-3 hour tours run around $20. While nothing is easily reached by public transportation, most tours will have shuttle buses that pick up from certain points in New Orleans.
Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Reserve is not a bad place to get a quick glimpse into swamp life. Located across the river from downtown New Orleans, there is a visitors’ center and a nice boardwalk trail that leads to a bayou with plenty of wild alligators. Be sure to take the moonlight canoe trek if you are there at the right time; quietly gliding over monstrous gators in the dark is an experience you’ll never forget!
Bayou Barn is a cool little place that has everything from pig roasts and Cajun dancing, to canoe rentals and swamp tours. Check their calendar for upcoming events.
Wildlife Gardens offers swamps tours in the surrounding areas and has a nice little bed and breakfast, renting cabins on a small bayou. You can feed gators right from your porch, canoe the bayous, and maybe even get a glimpse at a monster-sized gator they keep in the back. Great little place to spend a couple of days!
Dr. Paul Wagner, a wetlands ecologist, offers guided tours of the Honey Island swamp which lies near the Mississippi border.
Mr. Denny’s Voyageur Swamp Tours offers guided tours of the Honey Island Swamp in large canoes (no motor gives the extra advantage of spotting more wildlife) and also advertises wilderness camping.
Gator Swamp Tours offers swamp and marsh tours near Honey Island seven days a week. They also advertise individual excursions.
“Cajun Man” Ronnie Guidry offers swamp tours in Houma complete with his Cajun singing and accordion playing.
Angelle’s Whiskey River Landing offers tours of the Atchafayla Basin as well as the occasional fais-do-do [Yatspeak for "Cajun dance party"]. Located down the Henderson Levee Road.
McGee’s Landing (restaurant and basin tours), 337 Henderson Levee Road, Breaux Bridge, LA 70517, +1 (337) 228-2584, has an excellent restaurant with great views of the surrounding moss-covered swamps. They offer quick tours of the surrounding swamps with great opportunities for gator and other wildlife viewing.
There are few outfitters that offer overnight, multi-day adventures through the swamps of Louisiana. Wandering around the Henderson Levee Road and the Atchafalya Basin, you may find a small houseboat for rent, but anything else you may need to plan on your own.
Cajun Houseboat and Rentals, Inc., 800 David Dr. Suite 102, Morgan City, LA 70380, 1-888-508-5031 (U.S. only), firstname.lastname@example.org, rents small motorized houseboats in the Atchafalya. If you have braved the Amazon or jungles of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, roughing it in the swamps shouldn’t be a problem. A few outfitters on the Atchafalya will rent canoes but may be reluctant to let you go off on your own for a few days. However, if you show them you have the gear and the brains, they can probably be talked into something. Your best bet is to try the rental places on Henderson Levee Road.
Stay tuned for next month, for more information on Cajun Country.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.