If you travel by canoe through the river swamps of Louisiana, you may very well grow uneasy as the sun is going down. You look around for a site—a place to sleep, a place to cook. There is no terra firma. . . . You study the dusk for some dark cap of uncovered ground. Seeing one at last, you occupy it, limited though it may be. . . . You have established yourself in much the same manner that the French established New Orleans. So what does it matter if your leg spends the night in the water.
--John McPhee, The Control of Nature
For more than eighteen miles, the columns holding up Interstate 10 in Louisiana rise out of a swamp. Not just any swamp, mind you, but the Atchafalaya Basin Swamp—the largest swamp in the United States, covering a third of the total land mass of Louisiana. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge, as this portion of I-10 is known, is reputed to be the tenth longest bridge in the world. Our goal was Butte La Rose, from which we would travel down back roads to find the houseboat where we were to stay, moored in the swamp, for four days.
At the Butte La Rose exit, we pulled up to the Atchafalaya Tourist Center for directions. The woman at the information desk drew out a horseshoe route. She marked an X where we should follow the road to the right, past the car wash in Butte La Rose. From there, we were to proceed over the pontoon bridge and turn right onto Henderson Levee Road. She gave us coupons for free hush puppies at a local restaurant and lit up when suggesting we shouldn’t miss the Saturday morning dancing in Breaux Bridge: from behind the counter, she wasn’t able to see we owned two pairs of left feet.
Butte La Rose loomed large on our road map, but not so large on the ground. We went straight past the car wash, turned around, and missed it once again. We turned around once more and stopped where a lone man stood staring at his front lawn. “You’re way far off,” he said, pointing us back the way we’d first come. He nodded toward a ditch and said, “Waiting for it to dry so I can dig.” It seemed certain he would keep a close eye on it throughout the day.
Houseboat Adventures, we turned right and drove atop the levee, where we seemed suspended in midair. Only when we edged forward did the road appear again, leading down to the dock.
Our friends in New Orleans had seen to it we were well supplied: a battery-powered lantern bright enough to read by, two comfortable pillows, an ice chest, Ziploc bags in various sizes, and, best of all, a container of home-brewed concentrated decaf. They took us to Rouse’s Supermarket to stock up on provisions—I did my best to keep from piling into our cart all manner of mouth-watering Louisiana specialties I’d never seen before. We were to be grateful daily for our friends’ eminently practical suggestions and for their patience while we searched through Rouse’s vast aisles.
barred owls was so good, we recognized the female mating cry (“like a strangled monkey”) right away. We caught a glimpse of her in the dusky light as she lifted off a branch toward a male’s answering call. Thanks to the loan of the lantern, we had no need to run the noisy generator. (The houseboat’s plumbing was powered by battery, and, while it needed recharging daily, we could do that while we were out in the swamp.) We sat in the cool quiet, reading by lantern-light or watching the moon rise from the porch, until we turned in for the night.
We would have been happy enough with our boat trips and whiling away evenings on our porch, but there was a world around us about which we knew nothing, and we had friends here, as in New Orleans, who were generous and knowledgeable guides. For our second day, they proposed a lunch of boiled crawfish and “the best onion rings you’ll ever eat” and, for the following day, a trip to Avery Island and dinner in Breaux Bridge at Café des Amis (about all of which more will be said in subsequent posts).
After lunch, we had our first look at our friends’ camp. The camp, a lovingly renovated house in a beautiful woodland setting, sits on the bank of the Atchafalaya River, which we could view comfortably from the vantage point of a huge screen porch.
Among navigable rivers, the Atchafalaya is widely described as one of the most treacherous in the world, but it just lies there quiet and smooth. It lies there like a big alligator in a low slough, with time on its side, waiting—waiting to outwit the Corps of Engineers—and hunkering down ever lower in its bed and presenting a sort of maw to the Mississippi, into which the river could fall.boudin sausages as our centerpiece—though only after full instructions so they wouldn't fall apart on the grill.
That night, we got a call from our friends (even out in the swamp, it seems, cell phones work): “How would you like to stay at the camp tomorrow and we’ll stay on the houseboat?” We quizzed them: did they really want to swap their beautiful camp for our simple houseboat? They assured us they did, and, as this solved the problem of how we greenhorns would find our way back to the houseboat after an evening out, we readily agreed. We proposed they come to our place for cocktails before our outing so we could show them where things were and how they worked.
Carolina wren made itself known in the woods, and here and there a cardinal flitted into view. We called our friends to touch base. Only then did we learn that, without the moon to aid them, even they’d had trouble finding the houseboat in the dark.
We decided to have breakfast out before returning to the boat. We headed back to Breaux Bridge, but Café des Amis wasn’t open for breakfast that day, so we went on down the street. Unless you’ve a hankering to while away an hour on a beautiful morning waiting for the treat of perfectly cooked Tater Tots straight from the freezer to your plate, it’s a place that can be missed. No matter, the folks there were friendly. We cleaned our plates and went on our way.
Back on I-10, we thought about the watery connections among the swamp, the Atchafalaya River, and New Orleans. McPhee wrote: “The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans.” As a result, the swamp, “this most apparently natural of natural worlds, this swamp of the anhinga, swamp of the nocturnal bear—lies between walls, like a zoo. It is utterly dependent on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose decisions at Old River can cut it dry or fill it with water and silt.”
No matter what your thoughts about the Corps’ work, McPhee offers a clear-eyed view:
The Army engineers did not pick this fight. When it started, they were still in France. The guide levees, ring levees, spillways, and floodways that dangle and swing from Old River are here because people, against odds, willed them to be here. Or, as the historian Albert Cowdrey expresses it in the introduction to “Land’s End,” the Corps’ official narrative of its efforts in southern Louisiana, “Society required artifice to survive in a region where nature might reasonably have asked a few more eons to finish a work of creation that was incomplete.”
This is the second of four posts about New Orleans and South Louisiana. To read the first post, about New Orleans, click here. To read the third post, about Louisiana rookeries in spring, click here. To read the last post, about (more) good eats and good music, click here.